Cheers to a Meaningful New Year: Your How-To Guide to Defining Your Values, Reflecting Back, Setting Intentions, and Choosing a Guiding Word

Dec 31, 2023 | Blog, Guidance

Around this time of year, I usually guide my clients through reflections of the past year- or even their lives in general up to now. Long ago I gave up on resolutions (more on that later) and instead adopted the practice of setting intentions. For the past couple of years, I’ve also chosen a guiding word for each year, which acts as a sort of theme that inspires me and helps me stay aligned with my values and intentions.

Ever since I started doing the work of understanding my core values, establishing priorities, and being more flexible and gentle with myself, I’ve found that I’ve been more fulfilled in more areas of my life. And as is true with all of my a-ha moments, I like to share breakthrough knowledge with anyone who will find it beneficial. So here I’ve developed a how-to guide on values, reflection, intentions, and the guiding word. I hope it helps as we all move into the next year with the hope that we’ll see more of what we want, less of what we don’t, and make the meaningful change we seek.

How intentions differ from resolutions

Most people (I’ve read between 80-90%) give up on their resolutions after a couple of months. If we keep coming back to the same January tradition year after year, how can it be that the practice is so unsuccessful? Well to start, resolutions are too often focused on what you think you should do, rather than what is connected to your values. Similarly, they usually focus on the wrong thing, for example weight loss and dieting to change your outward appearance instead of looking inward and deciding what needs to change about your perception of yourself or how you can feel more holistically fulfilled. Also, resolutions are usually all-or-nothing and leave no room for flexibility, which is a setup for failure. No one is going to perfectly follow any goal for 365 days straight.

Add to that the fact that the holidays are difficult for many, whether it be grief, stress or overwhelm. Instead of attempting to revolutionize your life, the new year can be just the right time to rest and take care of yourself. And winter tends to inspire a sort of emotional and social hibernation, so if you live in a wintery climate, pre-spring can be a time to hunker down rather than kick new changes into high gear.

Intentions focus more on how you approach your life rather than what you accomplish. Intentions are not specific goals or resolutions. They are ways you intend to live your values more fully. Using the example I gave above, after doing some reflection and identifying your core values, rather than resolving to lose weight you might instead decide that you intend to move through the next year with more peace and confidence in your body. Rather than being attached to a specific number or goal, you’ve established a mindset that will inform each decision, interaction, and opportunity that arises.

Defining your core values

So how do you know what your values are? This is an essential part of this process, and I think of life in general. Not being grounded in your values makes you unhappy and endlessly searching. Getting clear on what you value allows you to make choices that align with your most authentic self and that create the lasting fulfillment you seek. Clarity about your values also creates a sense of purpose in your daily life that can get you through tough times, and helps you avoid making decisions that take you in the wrong direction.

Firstly, I recommend setting aside some time and space where you can be with yourself and focus on this practice. It is also best to write things down, which you can make fun by using sparkly gel pens or that cool new design program you’ve just subscribed to (Canva Pro, anyone?). If you’re feeling really wild, make a vision board!

Ask yourself the question, “When things are going well, what does that look like?” Identify what brings joy and meaning to your life. Similarly, identify anything that does not spark joy or meaning in your life, or that is clearly in the “shoulding all over myself” camp. Make an exhaustive list of each.

Next, make note of any value word that comes to mind. Google a list of values if needed, and pluck out anything that connects with something in you. Keep in mind that values may be current or aspirational. Then group similar values into themes. For example, quality time and mindfulness may fit nicely under the Presence umbrella. (Presence is one of my own core values.)

Finally, narrow the list down to your top 3-4 core values. They will be the ones that embody what is most important to you. Rank them in order of importance. This may be the most difficult part of this practice, for good reason! We exist in a culture where productivity is king, so it is no wonder when we feel pulled toward everything and compelled to do all the things at once. Organizing what is important to you under the headings of just a few core values allows you to prioritize, gain clarity, and notice progress in the direction you actually want to go.

The healing art of reflection

Most of my clients first come to me on the precipice of change. They’ve gotten to a point in their lives where they look back and notice that whatever they have been doing to manage, cope with trauma, or get through the day-to-day is no longer serving them, and they finally feel ready to implement changes that allow them to not just survive but thrive.

One common theme that tends to pop up with every client is regret. Most are usually hesitant to use this word, which is not surprising. In the wildly popular advent of #NoRegrets culture, we falsely believe that we are supposed to move through life making all the right decisions, and that when we don’t, we should simply dismiss it as ineffectual and part of the forgotten past.

But regret is a teacher. It has the power to reveal what you want and what you don’t. It can motivate and inspire you to make meaningful change and authentic choices, which is what living with intention is all about. As Daniel Pink explains in one of the best books I read this year, “Everybody has regrets. They’re a fundamental part of our lives. And if we reckon with them in fresh and imaginative ways, we can enlist our regrets to make smarter decisions, perform better at work and school, and deepen our sense of meaning and purpose.”

While a reckoning can seem daunting, that’s pretty much what this process is. Reflecting is like taking inventory of your life, a sort of Life Annual Report. Ask yourself: During this past year, what went well? What do I want to see more of? What didn’t go well? What do I want to be different? Review your core values. Are they still relevant? Do you need to add or remove any?

Setting intentions

Intentions are directly linked to your core values. They are all about living a life that is in alignment with your values. They are a compass to take you through all of life’s choices, big and small. And whether or not we realize it, we are constantly making choices and living with their outcomes.

Thinking back to your reflections and the core values you either identified for the first time or adjusted for the new year, decide which one needs the most attention. Prioritize what is most important at this moment, with the understanding that this can and will change over time, which is ok! Remember that no one can do all the things all at once.

Envision the life you want. What is helping you get there? What is holding you back? Identify the things you do that bring you both toward your values and away from your values. What actions are most aligned with your meaningful and authentic life?

Create a short phrase that reflects the change you want to work toward, evokes emotional connectedness, and aligns with your core values. This is your intention! Remember to write it down; visuals have a much deeper impact and help neutralize any anxiety you may feel from keeping it all in your head.

Choosing a guiding word for the new year

A guiding word sets a theme for your year that can be used as a compass, without needing to know all of the steps in advance. It helps you prioritize your actions, live your values every day, and move you toward your vision.

Looking back at your reflections, core values, and intentions, list any words that come to mind. Select the one that resonates the most. Try it out and tweak it if it doesn’t fit. Visibly display your guiding word, for example on a vision board. Include any quotes that feature your guiding word and feel inspiring to you. Check in at certain points throughout the year to be sure your guiding word still resonates.

That’s it, you did it! As opportunities arise, changes occur, and decisions need to be made, you’ll be able to tackle them as they come because you’ll be grounded in a foundation that is formed from your core values and life vision.

You’ll also be able to set achievable goals along the way because you’ve built in flexibility through setting intentions and not making specific resolutions. I’ll say it again (because it can’t be said enough): Not everything needs to be (or can be) done now. Prioritize, and know that priorities do and will shift.

My very best to you for a beautiful year ahead. See you in 2024!

My Life Annual Report 2023

Rather than share my current fascinations on this one, I think it’s important to show that the things I teach are the same things I practice in my own life.

Core Values: Empathy, Presence, Love, Autonomy, Abundance, Action. These haven’t changed in the last couple of years and are still a good mix of current and aspirational values, both personally and professionally. I’ve written all about them and what they mean to me on my About page.

Reflections: My guiding word for 2023 was Action. I chose one of my core values as my guiding word because it aligned perfectly with where I wanted and needed to go in 2023. COVID triggered almost constant reflection and really forced me to think differently about my vision and how and when I wanted to start realizing it. A quick sample of some of the major actions I took this past year: I moved my family abroad, quit my 9-5 job, and launched my own coaching and therapy practice.

Intentions: After 3 nonstop years marked by major losses, the birth of my second daughter, life-rocking existentialism, deep soul searching, and 4 moves (including a month at a hotel after we gave up our apartment and before we flew to Peru), this coming year will be all about getting settled and planting roots.

Guiding Word for 2024: Home. Since my move to the Sacred Valley of Peru, the things that have made me feel most at home include: Plenty of space and quiet in our new rural digs (so we have finally been able to add some four-legged members to the family), a consistent year-round climate that is pleasant and warm during the day, crisp and cool at night (sweater weather is my favorite), and fragrant with the almost-constant smell of BBQ, and of course my family, which now extends to close-by and open-armed aunts, uncles, and cousins, many of whom I’m meeting for the first time.

📺 Watching: Ok, I couldn’t resist this one. This New Year’s Day, I’ll be watching my favorite Christmas movie, It’s a Wonderful Life (on DVD! Remember those?!). I make it a point to view this 1946 classic every year, but it is also very timely given this article’s topic. Tireless optimist George Bailey’s life isn’t going the way he planned, and when things reach peak badness one Christmas Eve, he contemplates suicide. That’s when angel-in-training Clarence intervenes to show George what life would have been like had he never been born. Wholesome on its face, this black-and-white fast-talking gem is actually ahead of its time, tackling themes of grief, mental health, immigration, racism, power, greed, humanity, community and existentialism. I still get choked up at the final scene (*spoiler alert*), when Harry Bailey, fresh back from WWII, says the famous line, “A toast to my big brother George: The richest man in town.”😭

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