At the beginning of 2021, I had such good intentions to write something about how reflective practices can support change and growth. As a coach – and someone who enjoys personal development – I usually look forward to the shift from one year to the next. While our lives rarely transform radically from December 31st to January 1st, the start of a new year does symbolise a transition and can be a good moment to identify changes we would like to make. This year, one of those desired changes for me was to write more – both for myself, and for others.
I’ve found it hard to get started this year, though. Winter weather, ongoing lockdown, and other personal challenges have sapped my energy and motivation. Even as we approach a whole year of being confined to home, I find myself wanting to hibernate and hide away from the outside world, rather than find new ways to engage with it. As the first week of January slipped away, then the second, and then the third, I felt like the moment to share a piece about new beginnings had passed.
Then I remembered a great article my friend and fellow coach Robbie Swale wrote a few years ago about recommitting being the journey. You should read it – it’s an insightful deep dive into how hard it can be to create change, and the power of developing our muscle to recommit to our goals, even when we falter or fail along the way (as we inevitably do). So here I am, recommitting to sitting down and acknowledging that there is just as much power in restarting as there is in getting going in the first place.
If, like me, you’ve found it difficult to commit to intentions or goals for this new year, it helps to remember that we can restart that process at any time, whether that is the first day of January, or the last, or sometime in April or October. So I thought I would share my reflections on what it means to set intentions after a year of extraordinary upheaval, as well as some of the tools I use for myself and with my clients, in case they help your own act of recommitting.
As a year draws to its close, I often send the people I work with a set of simple questions to help them reflect on the year that’s been (here are this year’s prompts, in case you’d like a copy for yourself). They encourage reflection on what people have learned about themselves in the previous year, what was really good that they want to build on, what they’d like to leave behind, plus intentions and specific goals they’d like to follow in the year ahead.
2020 was not a normal year. It involved change and loss for us all. In the worst possible cases, that included loss of loved ones, income and health. But even those of us fortunate enough to have been spared these outcomes have experienced many changes (both positive and negative) in our day to day routines, our working lives, and our relationships with others. My conversations with coaching clients, colleagues and friends last year suggest that this has made it harder for many people to set clear goals for their life and work as we head into 2021. With so much uncertainty still ahead of us, it is difficult to imagine what this year will bring.
I tend to go overboard with the process of annual goal setting. I usually try and identify clear objectives for the year in all aspects of my life – career, health, finances, relationships, personal growth and so on – and then assign some priority to them. Looking at my notes from doing this at the end of 2019, I had to laugh. It was a page full of plans – a few of which came to fruition, but most of which got completely upended by the pandemic.
However, what I’m taking from this is not that planning is pointless, but rather that it is important to identify a smaller number of things that really matter to me and that are within my ability to influence or control. So much of what we want in life depends on circumstance or on the actions of others, and it can be frustrating chasing after goals that are not entirely within our power to accomplish. Moving forward – both for myself and when working with coaching clients – I’ll focus more on understanding and acting on what can be changed – our attitudes, behaviours and responses to different situations – as well as what can’t.
Our interconnection with and interdependence on other people is vital, though. It is a reminder that we don’t just have to rely on our own willpower and drive to make everything happen, but that we can draw support and power from our relationships with others. A valuable lesson that I took from my work in 2019 and 2020 with author and coach Tara Mohr was the need to set up your goals in a way that makes success easier and more enjoyable to achieve. For example, if you want to build up to running a marathon, then yes, you will ultimately have to do that on your own. But along the way you can recruit help and encouragement from others – perhaps by finding a running buddy who will go out with you on early morning training sessions when you’d really rather stay in bed, or joining an online runner’s support group to share tips and motivation.
Working with a coach can be a really helpful way to set yourself up for success in whatever goals you set for yourself. The coaching relationship is a safe and non-judgemental space to explore hopes, fears and the reality of your circumstances in a way that you might hesitate to do with your closest friends or family. There’s real power in having someone witness you and reflect back your thoughts and ideas in a way that opens up new perspectives.
There are also huge benefits in building a community around yourself to both give and receive support, and to feel part of a collective effort to make change happen. One of my proudest recent achievements in my role at the innovation foundation Nesta was setting up a peer learning group that brought together people from different teams to pursue their own learning questions, with the support and input of others. I’ll write more about that another time, but here it’s relevant for the ways it connects to the process of setting and working towards your goals. Who else in your community (or beyond) can support you with what you want to achieve? And what kind of support can you offer to others, that will let you bring your strengths and gifts to the wider world?
As I look back on 2020, I’m amazed at the capacity I discovered in myself and so many others to keep the ship sailing in difficult times. To keep getting up, getting dressed (more or less!) and then finding new ways to work, to learn, to educate, to support friends, families and neighbours, and to find moments of joy amid all the challenges. Last year, we proved that we could restart, over and over, in circumstances we hadn’t faced before or ever expected to. So my final reflection for the year ahead is that this will be possible again. Even if right now it feels difficult to plan for the future, hold on to the fact of your extraordinary resilience and capacity to make positive changes for yourself and others. And keep recommitting to the journey.