Resolution Reflections: Insights for Achieving Your New Year’s Goals

We’ve officially turned the page on a new calendar year. January is often a time of reset. We start anew, let go of the last year, and set ambitious and hopeful resolutions for our best year yet. But what makes this moment so special? A resolution is essentially a goal, and we are free to set goals at any time of the year. The new year often feels like a bookend moment, closing one chapter and beginning a new one. We tend to reflect more, giving us energy and motivation to change. That’s why many of us begin January with such gusto. When February dawns, however, we might not have as much motivation to keep going.

I became a casual half-marathoner as an adult. Before my runs I take stock, assess how my muscles feel, clear distracting thoughts, set time goals, and boost my determination. Feeling fresh at the start, fatigue sets in during later miles. When this happens, I mentally reset, imagining that the start of every mile is the start of the first. I take stock again, assess my muscles, clear my head, set a goal for the mile, and imagine I have fresh energy. This practice of reflection, even in quick or small bites, is a proven strategy to stay motivated and accountable on the goals we set.

Reflection Can Reduce Stress and Increase Your Likelihood of Success

Over my career, I’ve found a lot of value in regular reflection. It’s a tool that coaches, therapists, and others in the field of human development have used for decades. Reflection is giving something serious thought, especially when written or expressed. Writing helps organize and externalize our thoughts, providing a structured way to process and understand them. By reflecting on our experiences, we can observe actions, behaviors, thoughts, and emotions, gaining insights into their impact and consequences. Reflection allows us to detach ourselves from an experience and analyze it like a scientist, enhancing our learning process.

It’s a lot like participating in competitive sports. During a competition you’re in the heat of the moment, responding on the fly and making quick decisions. However, replaying the game afterward allows for a detailed analysis, seeing things you didn’t see or sense in the moment. You work with coaches to assess what worked and what didn’t, crafting specific strategies for improvement in future competitions. Reflecting is not just remembering the moments of competition. It is watching the replay then assessing and planning for the next one.

Journaling is a common form of reflection in practice. Research shows that the act of reflective journaling is associated with positive outcomes in situations of mental distress or anxiety. In one study1, researchers observed 70 people with various chronic health conditions and elevated anxiety over 12 weeks. Participants that journaled at least once each week showed reduced mental distress, anxiety, depression, and stress, and improved overall well-being.

In management and leadership studies, reflective journaling practices are often cited as a differentiating factor between mediocre leaders and exceptional ones2. They’re actively turning challenges into lessons and putting learning in action.

If you are trying to change something, develop new habits or behaviors, achieve a goal (like those New Year’s resolutions), or move forward past a tough situation, reflection can help you clarify what happened and what you were or are still feeling, identify key lessons, and plan reasonable and achievable actions to take you into the future.

Reflect with Purpose and on Moments of Impact

Much like the sports example above, reflection should be used in conjunction with a goal or objective. So, if you’re trying to stick to those New Year’s resolutions, reflection is a way to check in on how you’re doing in your efforts. It’s important to have balance. We tend to focus on challenges that we perceive as bad so that we can prevent them in the future, but challenges that bring joy or triumph can also yield important lessons in success.

Think about your big wins. You likely did something well, made great decisions, or had the support of key individuals. You may have proved yourself wrong, tried something new, taken a calculated risk, made a trade-off you didn’t think you could make, or discovered a strength you didn’t think you had. They show you what it looks like to be at your best and the activities and situations that energize you. These are important to note so that your successes can be repeated in the future.

Think about situations or decisions that challenged you. You might have perceived these as losses or setbacks — where progress was stopped, slowed, or reversed and outcomes were shocking or impacted you negatively. These can be the toughest to think about but benefit most from productive reflection. You may have had missteps, made decisions you’d like to take back, or run into unexpected or uncontrollable roadblocks. These moments are important for more complex reasons. They are great context to understand what you may or may not be able to influence or control, what was or was not effective, what activities or situations drained your energy, or skills you need more development in.

Collectively, these situations help us build new awareness on how to approach future situations and challenges — actions we can do more of, less of, or stop doing altogether. They help us answer the question, “what would make this even better in the future?”

Don’t confuse reflection with rumination. Looking back on past moments might lead us to get trapped in cyclical thoughts where we obsess over mistakes or judge and punish ourselves counterproductively. This is rumination3. In reflection, we focus on constructive and actionable thoughts. To ensure you’re reflecting, it’s important to look back on the full context of a situation without judgment. This is difficult for some of us. If you find yourself revisiting a mistake repeatedly, try taking a step back and think about how you might solve the problem or handle a re-do. Focus on behaviors and actions within your control.

Awareness is always the first step toward change. And just because we’ve been through something doesn’t mean we fully understand it. Looking at it through an observer’s lens lets us put some distance between ourselves and a situation; we tend to see things more clearly after they have happened, especially if we’re reflecting without judgment.

If It’s So Easy, Why Doesn’t Everyone Do It?

The top three reasons I hear the most for not reflecting are awareness, time, and discomfort.

Awareness. “I didn’t know this was a thing.” We live each day with forward momentum, planning time to accomplish this thing and the next, but not often stopping to check in or look back. Pausing and reflecting is not commonly encouraged, formally taught, or reinforced. If this is a new practice for you, know that it will feel strange or challenging at first, but will progressively get easier and more natural each time you do it.

Time. “I don’t have time.” We are so busy being busy (a common phenomenon in the United States). In our focus on productivity, days are filled with tasks on never-ending to-do lists. When we get moments to ourselves, we want to be able to think less, not more. Also reflecting may seem like a daunting and time-consuming task. If you’re short on time, reflection doesn’t have to be a huge exercise. Taking 15 minutes once a week can be effective.

Discomfort. “It’s hard to sit in my thoughts.” Looking back on situations with greater depth (especially when they were challenging) might not be pleasant. Reliving a situation we perceived as bad may bring back uncomfortable emotions or send us into a cycle of rumination and judgment. If you start to feel discomfort in the replay, imagine that you are a coach in the scenario and the main character is a good friend instead of you. Creating more distance between the you of today and you in the scenario could help you see through an observer’s lens.

Start a Reflection Practice

Starting a practice of regular reflection takes intentionality and consistency.

Start by blocking 15 minutes each week. Much like New Year’s, pick a time in your week where you might naturally look back and plan forward — this could be the end or beginning of your week. Pick a time of day where you are most refreshed and energized (versus tired and needing rest). Put it on your calendar and set a reminder.

Choose a natural medium. Everyone engages differently. Some prefer to write reflections with pen and paper. Others prefer writing digitally on a computer or mobile device. Some find it comfortable and convenient to make audio or video recordings and play them back later. Either way, choose something that feels comfortable, is easy to review, helps you remember, and holds you accountable.

Pick one situation to start. It’s not necessary to boil the ocean. Pick one scenario or situation to reflect on each week – one that was most important to you. This is plenty to start with.

Ask the right questions. Being intentional about how we review a situation can be the difference between reflecting and ruminating. The right question can be a powerful tool to create clarity, motivate action, or hold yourself accountable. Try these reflection questions to start:

  1. How was this situation important to my goal?
  2. What went well and what didn’t?
  3. Which of my actions, words, or behaviors helped or hindered me from navigating the situation successfully?
  4. If I had to go through this again, what could I do the same or differently to have a better outcome?
  5. What will I do to hold myself accountable?

As a coach my job is not to give my clients the answers, but to empower them to come up with answers on their own. A good reflection practice can help us listen to ourselves intentionally on a regular basis. The answer is often already within us, just buried under a mountain of obligations, task lists, schedules, ‘shoulds’ or daunting emotions. Doing these regular check-ins with yourself can help you make the changes and build the habits you set out to build in your New Year’s resolutions or in any goal you set at any point in the year.

References

1 Smyth, J. M., Johnson, J. A., Auer, B. J., Lehman, E., Talamo, G., & Sciamanna, C. N. (2018). Online Positive Affect Journaling in the Improvement of Mental Distress and Well-Being in General Medical Patients With Elevated Anxiety Symptoms: A Preliminary Randomized Controlled Trial. JMIR Mental Health, 5(4), e11290. https://mental.jmir.org/2018/4/e11290/

2 Bailey, J. R., & Rehman, S. (2022, March 04). Don’t Underestimate the Power of Self-Reflection. *Harvard Business Review*. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2022/03/dont-underestimate-the-power-of-self-reflection

3 Law, B. M. (2005, November 1). Probing the depression-rumination cycle. *Monitor on Psychology, 36*(10). https://www.apa.org/monitor/nov05/cycle

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