A dense fog rolled in this morning and still hangs heavy, lingers thick and white in the morning air. The ground was dry and bare, yet as I walked my dogs down the street this morning, I experienced a little of that peculiar peace and quiet you feel after a fresh snowfall. In most ways, it was a morning like any other, but the special quiet in the air, the absence of cars on the road, the occasional smashed bottles on the sidewalk from someone’s late night revelry, all signs reminded me that today was not just a new day, but a new year. And while my walk with the dogs continued as routine as any other morning, my footsteps felt a little softer, more reflective. This truly special new day comes only once a year.
Looking back, 2016 was easily one of the most transformative years of my life. On this day one year ago, I didn’t sit down and make resolutions. I already had one big, looming goal on the calendar. For years I had this crazy dream that I could thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail, then one day I finally decided to do it. I planned and prepared for months, and then on April 28, 2016 I left the US-Mexico border and walked 2,650 miles until on September 13, I arrived at the US-Canada border. So there was the achieving of the once seemingly impossible dream and then there was the void the fulfilled dream now left behind. There was the wide open world of possibilities ahead, but also the heavy, hanging question that, like this morning’s fog, crept in and grew like a tiny, persistent whisper…now what?
Sometimes occasions like New Year’s can feel contrived. On New Year’s Eve there’s the pressure of being out with your friends and feeling like you need to have the absolute best time of your lives to welcome in the new year and yet often the celebration can feel forced, you can barely stay awake until midnight, and the compulsion to have so much fun with a night ending in popped corks and midnight kisses somehow squeezes out a lot of the real pleasure of the evening. On New Year’s Day we’re supposed to awaken from the groggy hangover induced by the previous evening’s indulgences, make lofty resolutions to radically transform our lives, then shrug our shoulders in a couple of weeks when we’ve already stopped going to the gym every morning, cheated on the diet multiple times, because seriously who has time anyway to workout, eat healthy, learn a foreign language, forego alcohol, volunteer at the food bank, and read a book every week, etc. etc. etc.?
Some cynical minds might blame the artifice of the day – it’s a farce, a social construct we fall for every year like moths to the flame, lemmings running off the cliff of our own delusions – yet I’m still inclined to believe there is something sacred in the ritual of this first day of the new year, that we can honor that ritual in a meaningful way by taking the time to be quiet, reflect on our lives, and set both thoughtful and attainable goals for the year ahead. Not resolutions that inevitably set us up for failure. Not seeking overnight, radical transformations. But recognizing this gift that we’re given to take another trip of 365 days around the sun. Honoring the cycles of Mother Nature and seeking the balance and harmony that comes when we listen to her rhythms.
In the absence of a months-long hike/adventure on my calendar this year, I felt the need for this time of reflection and goal-setting more than ever. To figure out what’s next for me in my journey through life, to create a framework for exploring the possibilities, yet without getting lost or setting myself up for failure. This is what I came up with as an alternative to more traditional New Year’s resolutions, which I invite you to try, too. To start, simply find a quiet place and sit down with a notebook and pen, or open up a blank document on your computer. Make two columns. At the top of the first column, write “More…”, and at the top of the second column write “Less…” In each column, write what you want to do/be more or less of. These can be either concrete things like “More exercise” or abstract things like “Less distraction.” You may find that many of your “more” items have a natural counterpart in the “less” column, creating a kind of balance. For example, one of mine is eating healthier/more vegetarian meals and in the less column beside it, eating less sugar and processed foods. Instead of looking at the “less” list as a kind of denial or complete abnegation, we recognize that by doing less of one thing, we make room for something else. Conversely, by doing some of the things in our “more” list more, we will naturally do less of the things we want to do less.
Once you have your two columns filled out, you can choose what to do with it next. If you want to leave it as is, simply save the list somewhere that you can reference on a regular basis. You may find it helpful to have a physical copy that you hang on your refrigerator or in your office as a visible reminder of the ways you want to work toward your better self this year. It may be useful to save it as a note on your phone to glance at when you have time. If you have a daily ritual like meditation or prayer at the start of your day, perhaps look at your list and take some time once a week to reflect on the progress you are making toward your better self. Ask yourself, honestly, how you are doing in working to achieve these more/less goals and then reflect on what’s working for you, or where you might seek a different approach or shift in your focus.
Alternatively, if you’re like me and find it helpful or motivating to challenge yourself with precise, actual goals, you can spend time reflecting and even writing down specific steps or small, measurable goals you might set to work toward each of your “more/less” items. Here again we face the potential pitfall of setting unattainable goals, but with a proper measure of self-awareness and realistic expectations, we can check that impulse to shoot for the moon, keep our feet firmly grounded to the earth, and resolutely work toward smaller goals, recognizing that transformation happens in the small actions we take day after day, week after week, month after month, and even year after year.
Whatever approach you take to begin working on your list, be open to trial and error, and the occasional complete reset. You may find that your approach to doing more/less of things doesn’t quite work for one reason or another. And that’s ok. You haven’t failed. You can simply acknowledge what works and what doesn’t, and devise a new approach to try again the next day. Progress, not achievement is the key. That’s not to discourage you from setting bigger, loftier goals, but to understand that those bigger goals can be reached in a multitude of ways, and always with smaller, incremental steps or improvements, along with a fair share of setbacks.
Some goals, in contrast, will never be achieved at all. There’s no finish line or trophy for many of the things we can do to be better people. It’s in the doing, the trying, the growing, the sometimes falling short, but always getting up and trying again that we can continually work toward the best version of ourselves. And after another revolution around the sun, we can reflect on where we started, how far we’ve come, and not set out to transform into entirely new creatures, but continue the good work we’ve started of nurturing, evolving, and growing into our best selves.
In the spirit of sharing, here are a few of the items from my own list. What do you think? Feel free to share your thoughts or, if you’d like, some of your own more/less goals in the comments below. You may notice that first on my list is “more presence / less distraction”. As part of that, I’m taking a social media vacation for a few weeks, perhaps even the entire month of January, so please forgive me if I’m less responsive to your thoughts and comments.
However you choose to honor this beautiful new day of a new year rife with possibilities, I wish you a happy new year and happy trails through the year ahead!