Why do so many of us succumb to the holiday blues? Anticipate the approaching year with apathy, instead of eagerness? Refuse to think about New Year's resolutions?
Try this for an answer: Because deep down, we're unhappy about our accomplishments and personal progress during the past year. As a result, we feel we should lower our expectations for the year to come.
If that rings true for you, take heart. You can give your spirits a rocket-like boost and jump-start 1998 with a simple motivational strategy: the year-end review.
Successful businesses and organizations know the power of year-end reviews. As 1997 draws to a close, thousands of employee annual reports and presidents' letters to the troops will summarize their version of the year's big events. At year-end banquets and conferences, savvy executives will voice general kudos and distribute certificates, awards and bonuses to top achievers.
This yearly wrap-up ritual embodies an important psychological truism: Just living through experiences doesn't necessarily allow us to reap their maximum benefit. We need to recall them and celebrate the growth they fostered. Better still is to put them in a form we can easily access and reconsider in the future.
A year-end review can serve you just as powerfully as it does businesses around the world. Simply follow the guidelines that follow.
Draw up a list of major personal wins for 1997, leaving space after each item.
Quit smoking . . . Got promoted to assistant VP . . . Organized art auction to benefit Gillian's preschool.
Use calendars, diaries or other records to jog your memory. Include all important areas of your life: family, friends, finances, hobbies, community, personal development, and so on. Keep going until you have a feeling of completion. (My year-end reviews average 10 to 15 items.)
Include emotional successes.
Recent research suggests that our long fascination with intelligence has obscured the far greater impact of our "emotional quotient" on overall quality of life. That means that your achievements in developing new or stronger emotional skills deserve to be counted -- even though no one may know about them but you.
"Prepared for major presentation to management committee without driving myself crazy" or "Listened undefensively to the folks' doubts and fears about starting my own business and didn't let them weaken my resolve" can be just as noteworthy as higher-visibility feats such as surpassing a company sales goal or redecorating the bedroom.
Credit yourself for persistence. Results are important. Dreams fulfilled, goals achieved, big tasks completed obviously earn a place in our year-end review.
Less obvious is the strength we gain from consistent follow-through and persistent practice of new behaviors. Therefore, challenging "continueds" are also appropriate.
Example: Suppose that, after many years of starting and stopping, you finally committed to a regular exercise program in 1996, persevering with admirable consistency throughout 1997. Does "Continued fitness program of three or more 45-minute aerobic sessions per week" belong on your list? You bet. So does "Third year of sticking to my limit of two or fewer alcoholic drinks in any one day" and other tough, ongoing challenges.
Play up the positive.
You've heard of spin, right? Your assignment (should you choose to accept it) is to put a positive spin on each item you jot down.
Let's say your marriage or long-term relationship ended early in '97, and you plunged into The Pits. Constant emotional turmoil. Productivity barely at survival level. Got the picture?
Now you're looking back, evaluating your year. Your first reaction is to feel you shouldn't have let yourself get so angry/depressed, or at least should have bounced back more quickly.
Instead, I recommend you view this period in its very best light -- perhaps listing it as "Allowed myself the time I needed to really mourn the end of my relationship and readjust emotionally."
Feel like a hypocrite following such advice? Then ask yourself: Is there any way to prove that your first negative interpretation is more accurate than the positive-spin version? As master psychologist Virginia Satir emphasizes, facts -- in this case, your 10-month low period -- are neutral (meaningless); it's how we interpret and respond to them that determines the effect they have on our lives. Then why not pick the most motivating interpretation we can think of?
Give your inner critic a new role.
What about all those plans and goals, aims and objectives you flubbed in the past year? That missed their intended mark by a mile? That you stalled on part way through or never even started?
If you're anything like me and the people I know, there are plenty of them. My advice: Forget them. Well, mostly.
That's because this year-end review is a way to acknowledge and encourage yourself, not grade your performance. Focusing on -- even obsessing over -- our mistakes, losses and failures is near universal in our culture, but that doesn't make it smart. As self-esteem expert Jack Canfield notes, "Winners focus on their successes." Top management guru Tom Peters makes the same point when he tells his multibillion-dollar corporate clients, "Celebrate what you want to see more of."
No, I'm not suggesting that you shouldn't learn from experience. Go ahead and analyze your mistakes. But only if you can do it without mentally beating yourself up.
That carping, fault-finding voice inside our heads -- sometimes called our inner critic -- is simply the dark side of our invaluable capacity to discriminate and make sound judgments. We can defuse its negative influence by making sure it has a new role to play, and some rewritten dialogue to match. Replace scornful thoughts like "Sure, you finally learned how to use your spreadsheet program, but you didn't get that Web page going like you said you would" with useful questions such as "What did I learn that will help me produce a better result next time?" and "What would it take to improve my chances of getting the outcome I want?"
You can derive unsuspected insights this way. For instance, the fizzled Web-page project might yield, "Realized I hate learning computer stuff from books. This coming year, I'll take a class or hire a tutor instead."
Consult your mate, family and friends.
What do you see as my biggest accomplishment of the past year?
Is there something you've noticed about me in the past 12 months that you consider a change for the better?
You'll probably get a few things to add to your list -- and you may get some delightful surprises.
Add juicy details.
Go back over your list and use the space following each item to add details, feelings, others' comments, special circumstances -- one line to several paragraphs.
For instance, to "Got promoted to assistant VP," you might add, "Daniel sent a big bunch of flowers, and Margarita took me to lunch." The art-auction item could be amplified with "It was our most profitable fund-raiser to date."
Put your review in the form that will pack the most punch.
Are you a visual person, who loves color and images? Consider turning your list into an eye-grabbing poster for bulletin board or frig. Are you a wordy type, impressed by things superbly said? Use your list to write up a flattering feature about yourself in the style of your favorite magazine ("Two dozen leaders from the worlds of education, business, community service, parenting, psychology, philosophy, religion and the arts met in Atlanta recently to celebrate one person's outstanding contributions to all these different areas in 1997"). Perhaps what you crave are back-slaps or hugs with accompanying congratulatory remarks from the people you value most. Why not arrange to get exactly that, maybe by holding a celebration dinner where you share your year's successes?
Truth is, we're all different. What works for me may leave you cold. If any or all of these guidelines don't appeal to you, make up others. Do it your way. That will motivate you the most.
I believe life is a fascinating -- and definitely challenging -- journey. Arriving at the signpost of a new year deserves to be celebrated by as many means as we can dream up. A personal year-end review is one great way to do that.
Who knows? You may avoid the holiday doldrums and embark on 1998 with a wholly rekindled spirit of adventure.