The New Year that’s about to start is like a big empty glass-bowl waiting to be filled with sand. Only instead of sand, we’re filling it with time. On January 1st, we’re all starting to fill our bowls with 12 months, 365 days or 31,536,000 seconds of activities, events, happenings and doings. The question is: are we making good choices with this finite resource?
Many people would advise you to start with a goal for next year, with setting out specific achievements and accomplishments. I suggest you to take a different approach. Instead of pursuing any specific achievements, start by thinking about the kind of life you want to live. What’s important to you? What values do you want to be present in your life? What virtues do you want to practice in your life? I find this approach to planning my own life much more effective, and it gives me the ability to keep perspective.
After all, it’s too late to look back at your life when you’re on your death bed and think: gosh, I wish I would have paid more attention to the people I really loved, I wish I would have done more of the things that make me more fully human, I wish I would have lived a more spiritually fulfilling life…. So let’s not wait till then! Start with that this year! I’m going to share my most effective methods for planning the year ahead, and I invite you to join me in planning out 2013.
One thing’s for sure: 2013 is going to unfold no matter what. It’s either going to happen to you or you can make it happen for you by taking control of it and planning it now.
Creating your plan for next year is as simple as thinking of chunks of time as rocks you’re putting into that glass bowl. Put important ones in first. It’s also a good idea to put in the biggest stones fairly early (e.g. the biggest or most important jobs and activities). These stones are not just “big” in terms of time-size, but also in importance-size. Think of time with your family, spouse, church and prayer, job growth, education, health, vacation, etc. depending on what you deem of core importance. You put these in first because this way you build your life around them next year.
Once the bowl is starting to get full with the most important tasks, priorities and goals, we can put in pebbles wherever they fit – pebbles are the somewhat mundane stuff we have to do whether we like them or not. It helps to break these down into smaller tasks that take up short pieces of time. Finally we pour in sand to fill it all out. Those are the small tasks we do on a daily basis – things like washing the dishes, driving to work, doing expense reports and taking your clothes to the dry cleaners.
Let’s start with the basic question:
What do you love about your life right now and what do you not? Looking back over 2012, what aspects of your life, what situations are you happy with? How would you summarize your life so far? Are you the person you want to be? Do you live the life you mean to live? Are you fulfilled? And if not, why not? What virtues and values that you aspire to do you actually embody? Which ones do you lack in? If you knew you’d face your maker this coming year, would you be looking forward with confidence to it or dread that meeting?
Take the time to really contemplate these questions and write down your answers. Write them down, and let some time (a few hours, or a week if you can take it) and then come back to them. Reflect. This process is important for identifying: what are the core feelings, desires, and situations that you want to drive your life next year?
My Own 2013 Plan As a Case Study
Most people plan their year based on more or less random goals they’d like to achieve in the New Year. Instead, let’s make a plan based on what you learned this year and focus on building the life you aspire to live – not goals you aspire to reach.
We’re now going to build on the “what’s important?” exercise to look at more specific examples that can provide a barometer for the kind of life we’re trying to create.
What were your favorite 5 memories of 2012? Take some time to really contemplate this question. Look back at the pictures you’ve taken this year. Review your calendar or journal if you have one. Write down these 5 memorable events. Then look them over again a day or two later and change them or add to them if you feel the need to.
When you’re done, try to verbalize why you liked them, and what you liked about them. Did they involve specific people, places, activities, events and environments? Did they cause a specific mood, feeling or awareness? How did these events come about? Could you recreate them? What would have to be true for them to be recreated? Could you plan these for next year to happen again?
What activities and habits made you fulfilled during the last year? Come up with 5 of them as well. Describe what they are, what virtue or value do they represent? What situations made them possible? What circumstances enabled them to grow or come about? Who and what helped you in this practice? Who and what hindered you?
My favorite events and memories of 2012 are my family’s camping trip with friends, our family road trips (one to FL and one to visit my cousin and another to see my brother), extended visits from several friends, our lazy family Sundays and my trip to help out at the Swiss Guard swearing in ceremony in Rome last May.
What were your greatest 3 learning experiences in 2012? What events changed you in a positive or negative way and why?
I was shaped by the many speaking events I did. It seems to me that the interaction with a live audience makes me both think clearly and get the best ideas. I also found that having to deliver under some specific deadlines on a couple of projects made me be more productive than I would otherwise have been this year. Finally, I started teaching at Catholic University of America, and having to explain myself and the reasons behind what I’m saying to students made me realize just how little I actually know. I realized that I do a lot of things based on arbitrary assumptions and gut-feeling.
What were your 3 most spiritual moments in 2012? What 3 situations allowed you to transcend your humanity, your personality and communicate with God? Where did they happen? How did they come about?
I am a Catholic and some of my most profound spiritual moments are connected to receiving the Eucharist at Mass. Other times of transcendence come easily when I focus on Morning Prayer, often together with my wife Michelle. I had a wonderful experience going to a retreat in late November as well. Those few days of quiet helped me calm down and clear my head to hear God’s voice more clearly.
What do you care about most for 2013? What values do you want to live out in 2013? What virtues do you want to live and grow in during this next year? What events in the past helped you practice these virtues well?
In 2013, I aspire to live out more fully the virtues of moderation, patience and temperance because I believe that I live a life of material over-abundance and would be happier, healthier and more at peace were I to moderate and temper my life more patiently. I have in the past fasted which I find very hard to do but has great spiritual fruits for me. Abstaining from certain foods or activities (such as media/news consumption) has had very positive effects on me in the past.
Make a rough calendar on a piece of paper – just showing the months with some empty space for planning. Like a wall-calendar. (See this downloadable calendar if you need one).
Now start with the most important things first: plan to re-create your 2012 happy moments in 2013 at specific times. If they take some prep time, plan that into it.
My first action is to institute lazy family Sundays in our calendar. I also need to schedule time for camping at least three nights, two road trips, inviting friends to stay with us for extended visits, and I need to plan to go once more to help out at the Swiss Guards in May.
What prior commitments do you have for 2013? What are the big events or happenings that are already planned? For the family, for work and for other social responsibilities.
We have a big family reunion at my childhood home in late summer this year when my twin-siblings turn 50. Given that this is in Switzerland, we’ll have to plan to find good fares, maybe even find ways to pay for the tickets with miles – and we want to rent a car while there to ensure that we have independence and flexibility.
I already have my work schedule and a few key events in connection with that, so these go into the calendar as well.
Take a week to go through your fond memories of 2012 and maybe even a few years in the past. Find out what it is that makes your life a joy. Find out what makes you who you want to be. Be sure to keep notes as you go through all the exercises I describe above, and most of all, be honest with yourself. We often forget that the person we lie to most frequently is ourselves.
Putting it All Together
Now that you have put the “big stones” into your calendar for next year, let’s work on the structure that makes up your life. There are six areas I think of in my planning: Physical, emotional, spiritual, intellectual, social and professional.
Physical: How is your physical health? What would be one step you could do in the right direction to improve your physical health? How could you make that into a routine? How could you schedule that into your daily or weekly activities? How could you make this into a public commitment?
Emotional: What regenerates you emotionally? What are your most important emotional attachments, the core emotional relationships? What destroys you emotionally? Sometimes it’s what you avoid rather than schedule that makes all the difference.
Spiritual: Where are you at spiritually? Have you ever explored the faith you were born into without bias? Spiritual growth is often hindered by dysfunctional family relationships. Who can have a good relationship with God if he or she has had a terrible experience with either of their parents? Who can trust in an all powerful God if they’ve experienced others with authority abuse that authority to their detriment? What would the next step be in your spiritual development? Not the ultimate acceptance or finding the ultimate answer – just the next step. What’s in front of you that you could deal with this year? Put some time aside every day to consider God, to pray or to go to Church.
Intellectual: What is your next intellectual stepping-stone? What’s your next level of development? What stimulates you intellectually? Schedule some of that into your calendar. Maybe a course or a reading list of books? Maybe a series of audio books?
Social: Who are your most cherished friends? The causes and groups you care most about? What is your ideal involvement in society? Make sure to schedule them regularly into your activities. Do it now, before other priorities dictate otherwise.
Professional: What is our vision for your work/career? Where do you want to be in 5, 10, 20 years? Break it down into smaller steps and necessities. Then figure out what you need to do next year to move along on the path to making your vision a reality. Within this context, your goals become guided by your overall vision for success, rather than a specific income level or title.
And finally: You.
Think of yourself as a friend would. If you had a best friend who was just like you, in the same life situation, same issues, same opportunities. What’s the one thing you would advise them to do or change this coming year? What’s one habit you’d insist they develop? What’s one habit they should stop? What’s a relationship they should start, strengthen or cease? What’s the next step they should take in their development? You get the idea… Write that down as if it was your friend you wrote it for. Then go over your 2013 calendar and put that advice into action.
I wish you a happy, healthy and blessed 2013. May you live your life to the fullest and get one more year closer to being the person you are meant to be.