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Why you should reflect on your successes of the past

Illustration by Elin Matilda Andersson, Makers MGMT.

Dr Alice Boyes is author of the books The Healthy Mind Toolkit (2018) and The Anxiety Toolkit (2015).

The start of a new year is often associated with setting goals for change. However, sometimes this can take on a negative tone. Perhaps your goals rollover from year to year without being achieved, or reflect aspects of yourself you’re deeply critical about, like that you’re not thinner, fitter, or tidier.

To counteract this negativity, an alternative is to do a positive, broader review of the past year. What follows are some questions you can use as prompts, and explanations of why these questions can be useful. If you’re spending time with friends and family over the break, you can also use these questions as conversation starters to find out others’ answers and deepen your important relationships.

What were your surprise successes? 

When you reflect on your surprise successes it can have (at least) two consequences.

Firstly, reflecting on experiences you enjoyed more than you expected can help you see yourself in a more nuanced and flexible way. Secondly, when you appreciate the role of surprises and chance in creating positive emotions, achievements, or a sense of meaning in life, it can encourage you to be more exploratory and try more new things.

Here are some questions to consider:

(a) What was the relationship that surprised you the most this year?

Such as a colleague you worked closely with for the first time, or an extended family member who you weren’t previously close to but who was very supportive when you were experiencing stress.

(b) What was an event you enjoyed a lot more than you expected to, and why?

It might’ve been a conference, party, or work assignment you hadn’t expected to enjoy, or it could be an aspect of parenting your kids at their current age that you hadn’t expected to be so fulfilling.

(c) What’s a purchase that has given you outsized joy, relief from stress, or another benefit?

Perhaps you bought a mandoline and you’re cooking with more vegetables, or outdoor furniture you’re using all the time.

How have you evolved?

People often criticise themselves for not changing enough but in doing so sometimes overlook subtle ways they’re evolving.

Try these questions.

(a) What have you changed your mind about this year, which could be an aspect of yourself or others you’ve begun to judge less harshly or a problem that seemed insurmountable that feels less so?

(b) What’s a micro habit you’ve started that is working well for you?

(c) What has been the most useful insight into yourself you’ve learned this year, such as something you read that was a lightbulb moment?

What have you learned about how you learn best?

We’re all exposed to many good ideas, related to topics like productivity, health, stress, organisation, cooking, parenting, or specific to your job. However, actually implementing even the most inspiring tips can be overwhelming with all the other demands of life.

Try reflecting back on three tips or strategies that you enacted this year. Don’t be too perfectionistic in what you identify.

As a writer, I can think of several, small writing tips from editors I’m now using regularly. Ask yourself what enabled you to move from being exposed to an idea or strategy to action.

What was it about the messenger, the way the message was delivered, or when you heard the tip that made you more likely to apply it?

What was it that made it feel important, relevant and achievable? How were you able to extrapolate between someone else’s example and the potential application in your own life?

How were you able to incorporate that tip or strategy as a habit or routine? Now, take all your answers together and extract some general principles about what helps you learn, grow, and change. 



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