How Was Next Year?
Happy New Year!
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Take a minute and imagine that you were an Olympic diver. As preparation for the world championships, part of your training includes regularly visualize that winning dive.
In your mind’s eye, you see and feel yourself walking up the steps to the board, taking the steps to the end, and feel your toes press down on the edge of the board. Focusing all your attention on the moment, you push away the noise of the crowd. You open your arms wide and flex your back. You bend your knees and push off the board to bounce—once, twice, three times. Springing up you extend your legs in front, bringing your hands to your toes, and then quickly open your arms, straighten your body and spin until you are looking down at the water with your hands in front of you. You feel your body slice through the water and then flip around to shoot back to the surface and swim to the edge of the pool. The dive is perfectly executed, and you turn to look at the judges for your score. It’s a 10.
Athletes use visualization to prepare for competition. Our brains aren’t very good at distinguishing “real” from vividly imagined. That’s why dreams feel so real even though you’re in bed and not actually flying over The Himalayas. Your brain can’t tell.
This phenomenon is part of why I give myself and my clients an assignment at the new year, to write a letter to yourself from one year in the future.
The idea is that “You of January 2023” writes to “You of January 2022”. You share the way the year went. What happened, how did it happen, what were the challenges and how did you overcome them?
Just as the athlete’s visualization trains their brains to better execute their sport, your letter will train your brain to expect and be pulled forward by the future in the letter. You put yourself in the mindset of looking back from one year. And then you narrate that year in a letter to yourself. The more detail and authenticity the better.
This year, as I wrote my own letter, I noticed another two benefits of the letter from the future.
With goal lists there no “maximum”. We could list one, five or fifty. But there is a limit on the resources we can devote to those goals. Whether the stamina in takes to focus and juggle or the number of hours we can spend. Attention and time are limited resources.
Anything. Not Everything.
While crafting my letter from the future I tried to imagine the actions I “took” to reach those goals, the time I spent and the way it all fitted together. There were a LOT! But going into detail about how they came into reality forced me to confront the limits of what I could reasonably have done.
Even over the course of entire lifetime we can’t accomplish everything we might imagine. Doing things takes time. Time to learn, overcome, practice, make mistakes, develop skill, find mentors. Bucket lists tend to be long. Does your bucket overfloweth?
It’s hard to prune a bucket list, because giving up any one item feels permanent. You can’t do it “later”. But that’s not true of the next year. We all live assuming that it will not be our last year on Earth. We have to. Yes, it may be your last year. Life is uncertain. But if you only look out as far as this next year to accomplish all your goals, the year will be spent chasing your tail. It will only create overwhelm and confusion.
You can do anything but not everything.
So, as you write the letter, think carefully about how you went about tackling all the extraordinary things you will have accomplished. Deal with the reality of our temporal limits.
The Ups and the Downs
This letter-writing exercise forces you to anticipate more than the accomplishments. It demands considering the obstacles. Going into a narrative with lots of detail will make it hard to fool yourself into believing it will all be a greased slide. Even if you think it will be easy and all wins, it won’t be. The stuff in your letter will likely be challenging, or you would already have done it. Consider the hard stuff and the stuff that might make it harder.
Where were the problems? What did you have to overcome, confront, learn, or improve? Thinking about those challenges prepares us to meet them. If you can bring as much detail and imagination to the potential hitches, you can begin to create solutions. Inserting some negative thinking helps to build resilience and a well of ways to deal with the difficulties.
Anticipate the roadblocks. Maybe the challenge is economic, and you need to save money or make more money. Or perhaps it is overcoming the fear of doing something new and unknown. Whatever they are, the path to a gratifying year means dealing successfully with those potential problems.
Plus, shit happens. This year my mom had some health issues that I wanted to help with. I had a surgery that demanded recovery. There were unexpected (welcome) new opportunities I didn’t expect. All of those demanded time and focus. And in some cases, something had to give. Those are the things that are rolling over from last year to this year. I couldn’t have known about the out-of-left-field issues. But I should have assumed there would be some.
Still, as I look at last year’s letter, I am heartened. The question I ask myself, is what happened that wouldn’t have happened anyway? The letter gave me a gateway to take new risks and try things I’d been meaning to do. It opened scary doors and showed me how to walk through them.
As I reported in last year’s letter to myself, I started learning the violin, and completed the work to have a beautiful front garden. I grew my business and built new friendships. I got to know my sister better and came up with a cool plan for a VR game. And more.
The Real (Awesome) World
Write a letter from the future that looks back on a past here, on Earth, not in a fantasyland where everything is perfect. Within that imperfection, craft a year in which you have fulfilled or made progress on major undertakings that matter to you; in which you have added nurturing and enlivening experiences. Craft a year full of joy, love, and the results that you care about.
How was next year for you? You decide!