A More Present-Minded You for the New Year

With January upon us, most of us are hoping to start the new year with a clean slate. 

But what does that mean exactly? Why do so many of us feel burdened to clean our slates and set resolutions on New Year's? Regardless of whether you subscribe to the idea of working toward a set of resolutions for the next 365 days, it's common to find yourself re-evaluating the last 364 days. That might come in the form of regretting past bygones or being preoccupied with the uncertainties that await next year. 

While these are valid concerns to have, the problem with focusing so heavily on the past or worrying about the future during New Year's is that we run the risk of missing the most significant component in between, which is the PRESENT


The 'dirty slate' phenomenon

I'm going to share a metaphor. In this metaphor, the proverbial slate represents your sense of satisfaction with your daily life. A 'clean slate' therefore finds you feeling unburdened and fulfilled, while a 'dirty slate' leaves you feeling dissatisfied, frustrated, and maybe even discouraged with how you believe your life has been or might be in the future.

Overly fixating on the past or future can quickly lead to this 'dirty slate' phenomenon of course, because fixating on the past or future on its own doesn't directly affect your actual life in the present. Put another way, everything outside of the present has either already happened or is not yet destined to be. Thoughts alone won't change that.

You might feel especially stuck or burdened with a 'dirty slate' when re-imagining hypothetical what-if scenarios, because you're thinking — you're not living in the here-and-now. You're missing the here-and-now. You're overlooking elements of joy and satisfaction that are present in your life right now.

But you know what? We all do that from time to time. Hence the seemingly universal hooplah around making resolutions and counting down the seconds to the new year. And just to be clear, it's perfectly okay to reminisce and/or plan ahead, but the present must be acknowledged throughout all of that. (For those who practice mindfulness, this is the heart of mindfulness training.)

Quite literally, only by focusing on the present moment can you can truly feel, experience, and live in your life


Clearing the slate for a fresh start

So, how do New Year's resolutions fit into this picture?

There's nothing inherently flawed or doomed about goal-setting. In fact, I love resolutions. New Year's resolutions can absolutely be therapeutic insofar as they motivate you to accomplish positive change, with you holding yourself accountable for your intentions and progress.

Where this gets tricky is in trying to make your resolutions work for you, in a more present-focused, here-and-now sense. We've all heard the stereotypical resolutions to exercise or diet or lose X amount of weight or fit into Y size of clothing. While this kind of resolution isn't necessarily 'bad,' it doesn't really do much in the way of keeping you grounded in the present — which, as I mentioned before, is the only way to truly ensure you're experiencing life instead of just thinking or worrying about it.

With more than enough left to worry about right now (I'm looking at you, 2017), I encourage everyone to set present-focused resolutions this year, with the intention being to keep you in the here-and-now. If you're not sure how do to that, here are 3 simple suggestions to get you started:

  1. Give yourself a little pinch.

    Do this when you notice your mind drifting, unhelpfully bringing up feelings of regret, frustration, doubt, or dissatisfaction around past or future worries. Gently pinch the back of your hand or the inside of your cheek with your mouth closed. Create just a small sensation to bring your attention back to the present. It doesn't have to be extreme, painful, or noticeable to anyone else, but it should be slightly uncomfortable. Not enough to cause suffering, just enough to force your attention to return to the present moment.
  2. Smile with intention every now and again. 

    When you notice your mind drifting onto unhelpful ruminations, you might also notice that 'dirty slate' feelings like frustration and confusion might sometimes end up reflected on your face or throughout your body. You might suddenly notice your lips in a frown, your jaw tight, or your shoulders tensed. Smiling in this case acts as a conscious physical cue that forces your body back into the present. Again, it doesn't have to be a huge grin that will make your coworkers or fellow commuters take notice, but you should feel the corners of your lips turn up slightly, your jaw loosen, and your shoulders drop. You should feel yourself returning to the present through your smile. 
  3. Do something joyful. I mean, actually DO it.

    Piggybacking on my previous point, you have plenty to smile about... don't you?

    Exercise, play with your children, read, put on music in the shower, cook something from scratch... there is no end to the number of joyful things you might have in your life. If you're not doing something joyful right now, let this be your reminder to recognize it exists in your life, and then act on it.

    If you already do all these things and no longer find joy in them, maybe there's something better suited to bringing you joy than what's currently in your life. I invite you to make it your daily goal to find out what that new joyful activity is. Because it's out there. I know it. 

    Actually do something that brings you joy — every day! Again, it doesn't have to be a big gesture. It could be an extra 5 minutes in the hot bath, an extra pat on the head for your pet, or a spontaneous text or call to a loved one just to say "hello." The point of doing is to root you solidly in the present. It's impossible to be doing something joyfully while simultaneously being 'stuck' in past or future frustrations.

If this sounds surprisingly simple, that's because it is. Resolutions don't need to be complicated or convoluted to be helpful, and you don't have to move mountains to be successful with your resolutions. So go ahead and give it a try. 

2018 is upon us after all — a brand new year, for a brand new you. What's to stop you now?

Charlene Chow