The holiday season can be festive and fun—a time to connect with people we love, a little down time if we’re lucky, perhaps a little overindulgence. It also can be rough on many who struggle with loneliness, and a stark reminder of loss. For people like me who love this season, it can be hustle and bustle from December 1 forward. I play Santa, Mrs. Claus, and all the elves. One year I added up all the time I put into making Christmas bright and it came to 165 hours, all in. And I don’t think that includes putting it all away. The result is that if normal time seems to go by in a flash, December seems to last about four minutes.
The extra social engagements can be exhausting, even for extroverts. The gift giving and receiving can start to feel overwhelming if it is abundant, or unfair if it isn’t. I find my global anxiety spiking if I go down the rabbit hole of “Oh, the trash, it is too much!” or “This rampant consumerism is absurd!” It can all just feel like a lot of noise.
Some folks find tremendous joy and comfort in Christmas or Hanukkah and other cultural traditions, but those without a strong cultural or religious affiliation are left in the cold. Regardless of how we feel about the holidays, what seems to be lacking for many is meaning or substance.
The good news is that the whole loud whirlwind ends up in a hard reset as we launch into a new year. A fresh start, a chance to take another crack at a goal that continues to matter despite false starts and obstacles. A perfect opportunity for reflection, and a way to slow things down.
The best way I’ve found to build meaning into the holiday-end-of-year madness is to do an exercise I call My Year in Review.
I can’t remember where I got the idea to do it—it was probably from a coach I worked with. I’ve done it every year since I learned about it, and I’m always surprised at how much I get out of it. It goes like this.
- Take a moment, alone. I tend to do it after everyone else has gone to bed; but one year, the carnival in my house was so nuts that I did it in the parking lot of a grocery store. So whatever you need to do to get some time to yourself, do it.
- Use your calendar if you keep one, any journals you may keep, or whatever else you might need to get an in-depth look back at your year.
- Make a list of the following:
- My successes and wins: Things I am grateful for, am pleased with, appreciate, and/or am proud of.
- My disappointments and failures: Challenges, obstacles, difficulties.
- What I am grateful for, and people I want to thank.
That’s it. Easy peasy, don’t you think?
As a bonus, if it makes sense, it can be lovely to set apart time with a dear friend or significant other who also does the exercise and share your lists. It is good to agree beforehand that the person who is listening to the person sharing their list simply acknowledge, maybe ask a few questions, but not derail the focus or take the opportunity to weigh in on any one topic.
Another little bonus, for those so inclined, is to take a moment to send a quick note to the people you want to thank. A text, an email, for the boomers maybe even a postcard, just saying “Thinking of you, thanks so much”—for the advice, for the favor, for listening. When was the last time you got a little thank-you note? Doesn’t it feel amazing?
What are the tangible benefits of making the effort to do this?
Investing the time to complete a My Year in Review:
- Provides Structure for Reflection: We all know we need to slow down and reflect, but this makes it active. What might start off looking like you’re staring into space turns into something active, and, ultimately, useful.
- Improves Your Memory: Ann Patchett, in her novel Tom Lake, says: “There is no explaining this simple truth about life: you will forget much of it.” Boy, is that the truth. Doing this exercise every year increases the chances that you will remember achievements that have been buried in the rough and tumble of the daily scrum. It also increases the chances that you will encode the lessons learned. A couple of years ago when I did the exercise, I remembered a tiny moment in which a mistake while driving did not result in what could have been a spectacular car crash. From that moment on I’ve never, ever changed lanes without using my blinker. A moment in time that I remembered something I was grateful for turned into a permanent change. I often need to experience lessons several times before I truly learn them. Taking the time to consider lessons gone unheeded can ensure that in the next year you will make new mistakes, instead of having to suffer the consequences of making old ones.
My Year in Review provides a remarkable record over the years. I have been doing it for over 25 years and I have a file of them going back to the year 2000 on my hard drive. It can be an extraordinary resource. Some people have very good memories, but the rest of us can use a little help. I always think I will remember when I took trips or accomplished something cool, but I never do.
- Allows You to Reframe Difficult Experiences: I have noticed that sometimes, not always, experiences that I thought would go in the Disappointments bucket ended up, upon reflection, in the Positive Experience bucket. A grueling divorce that you thought was going to kill you is revealed to be the best thing that ever happened to you. Being let go from a job made space for the right job to present itself. Of course, that isn’t always true. Some life events are hideously unbearable and will never be anything but dreadful, but on rare occasions there is a silver lining to be found. If there is a silver lining, the reflection time will make it more likely that you will find it.
- Balances Your Regular Outlook: Optimists tend to remember the good and block out the hard. Pessimists tend to fixate on what went wrong. Doing this exercise forces us to change our filters and interpret events through a new lens. It lets us shape a more even-keeled perspective of our experiences.
- Expands Your Natural Time Perspective: Dr. Phillip Zimbardo proposed that we all, often unconsciously, divide our personal experiences into the past, the present, and the future. This is known as time perspective. There are benefits in terms of quality of life and success achievement to all three natural orientations, but there are also some downsides. While being focused on the past can cause people to focus more on others, it can also keep people stuck. People who focus only on the present may enjoy themselves more but can fail to plan appropriately for the future. People who are primarily future-focused often achieve success, but can struggle to take pleasure in their achievements or enjoy anything in the moment.
Doing the My Year in Review gives people who tend to over-focus on the past an opportunity to let things go. It allows people who are gifted at being in the moment to hang on to important memories. And for those like me and many others in western culture, who can become enslaved to our plans for the future, it compels us to just stop. Just. Stop. For a minute. Learning to shift our time perspective can vastly increase our enjoyment of our lives.
Some folks go so far as to name their year or give it theme: The Year of the Puppy, The Year of the Move, The Empty Nest Year, The Year I Finally Quit the Terrible Job. That sounds like fun, though I have never done it.
We often hear “Life is short, we must seize the day!” It is true of course, and the exhortation can compel us into action. But it is also true that life is long, we are old a lot longer than we are young, adulting is relentless, and life can start to feel like one long trip through a spanking machine. We forget so much more than we think we will, and entire decades can end up feeling like a big blur. We all know that we need to count our blessings, practice mindfulness, and stop to smell the roses, and doing this exercise is a great way to do all those things.
Here's to a brilliant, fun, and healthy New Year!
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