As the days begin to grow longer and we welcome the next calendar year, many are looking toward this new year with a familiar mixture of hope, trepidation, excitement, and uncertainty. The new year inevitability brings with it the question of resolutions, goals, and hopes for what we will create or experience in this next chapter. 

There are many great resources for setting effective goals – our SEL curriculum includes several lessons dedicated to creating SMART goals and progress monitoring goals – however, it is not uncommon for the mere concept of resolutions and goal setting to create anxiety in students and adults alike (particularly those with perfectionistic tendencies). While we know that goal setting is a necessary skill in life, this also begs the question of how we can remain mindful while setting and working towards our goals. If mindfulness is based on present moment awareness and goal setting is based on future hopes and plans, can the two even co-exist? 

Striking this combination of staying focused on the present while aiming towards our future desires can be a powerful duo when paired skillfully. Rather than detailing frameworks and strategies for traditional goal setting, this article is intended to support you and your students in bringing more mindful awareness to your process of setting goals – and hopefully more joy and less stress as a result! 

  1. Reflect on (and own) your wins

Before even beginning the process of setting goals, hopes, and resolutions for the coming year, it can be a useful and powerful practice to set aside intentional time for reflecting on and celebrating your ‘wins’ from the previous year. 

You may be surprised at how commonly people experience discomfort or embarrassment when asked to celebrate or “own” their wins. As a therapist, my clients have no issues telling me about all of the difficult, negative, or challenging experiences in their life; but when prompted to share what is going well for them or what they are most proud of I am often met with confusion and silence. This is all the more reason to make time for reflecting on our wins. 

Our brains are naturally hardwired to remember the negative experiences, so by taking time to remember what went well, where we succeeded, what we are proud of, and what we have accomplished we begin to form a more accurate assessment of our accomplishments and our self-worth. This provides us with a much stronger foundation for pursuing our future goals. Keep in mind that your ‘wins’ need not be monumental or life-changing – even remembering small accomplishments and simple moments can make a significant difference. 

Here are two exercises to support you in owning your wins:

1) Write down a list of your “Top 5 Things I am most Proud of in [insert past year].” That’s it.

For bonus points, share your list with a close friend, family member, teacher or supportive person in your life. Push yourself to publicly celebrate the things you are proud of. 

2) To take it a step further, set a timer for 10 minutes and continuously write all of the accomplishments, wins, happy moments, and positive memories that you can recall from the past year. The idea here is to use stream-of-consciousness writing to potentially access memories or events that you might not consciously recall, so be sure to just keep moving the pen no matter how small or trivial what you are writing may seem in the moment. Feel free to extend the time if you are enjoying this activity. 

2) Decide what to let go

We all have them. The things (thoughts, feelings, relationships, patterns, habits…the list goes on) that we would rather not have. If it were easy to simply ‘let go’ of these things, we would have done so a long time ago. A major barrier, however, is that many of these patterns and habits reside outside of our conscious awareness. 

These are the self-berating comments we engage in without thinking twice (“I’m so stupid. I’ll never get what I want.”), the behaviors we repeat entirely unconsciously (Netflix binge, anyone?), and the situations or relationships we know are hindering our growth but that we remain in out of complacency or fear. 

Just as it is important to bring our “wins” into our conscious awareness, it is critical to shine the light of non-judgmental awareness into the shadows of our lives where we would rather not look. While simply naming these things is not likely to guarantee change, awareness begets transformation and is the only first step on the path to truly letting go. 

Think of this as drawing a line in the sand. These patterns/things/relationships/jobs/thoughts may have even served you well in the past, but it is time to make a clear decision to let them go. This decision will support you in the year to come – each time you notice yourself engaging in these same patterns you will have the choice to contrast this with your decision to let it go. With practice, the patterns will become less and less addictive and you will make space for something new. The key here is not to berate, criticize or judge yourself when you fail – this is simply part of the letting go process. 

Take a moment of pause and reflect on these questions:

  • What patterns are no longer serving me?
  • Where do I feel “stuck” in my life?
  • What am I hoping will end so that I can finally feel ______ (free, happy, peaceful, fulfilled…)?
  • What people or relationships are no longer aligned with my goals?
  • What behavior(s) do I engage in that I know are harming me? 
  • Most importantly – what would I like to let go of?

After reflecting on these questions, make a list of 5 things you would like to let go of from the past year.  Maybe you’re finally ready to let go of the regrets you’ve been holding onto, or maybe it’s something more tangible like a bad-habit or toxic friendship. Whatever you decide, make a clear commitment to yourself that you are no longer going to carry these things with you into the new year (remember the self-forgiveness part when you do slip). 

If you choose, it can be even more impactful to make a ceremony of this occasion. Take your list and burn it in a fire, or bury it in the ground. You might even find 5 stones to represent your list and carry them around with you for a few days before taking them out and letting them go – thanking each of them for the role they have played in your growth and honoring your commitment to move on. 

3) Set an Impossible Goal

The concept of an impossible goal, as strange as it may sound initially, is one that has radically transformed my life (credit to one of my teachers, John Wineland, for this idea). An impossible goal differs in a few fundamental ways from our traditional understanding of goal setting. For starters, it should feel impossible! The point of setting an impossible goal is not actually in the achievement or realization of the goal, rather, it supports us in reframing our daily actions, intentions, and decisions to align with what we actually want and desire for our lives. 

Here is how it works: imagine that you could achieve/be/do/have anything by the end of this year. What would you want for yourself? What dream or idea would you want to bring to life? How would you want to feel? 

For example, if you have always wanted to transform education in America, what would be the scene of the ultimate realization of this dream? Perhaps you’re giving a TED talk, addressing a national audience of education experts, or even briefing the White House on your ideas. Perhaps you have published a book that is on the New York Times bestseller list. 

Hint: if your impossible goal does not make you feel uncomfortable, then you are not dreaming big enough. This should feel ridiculous, silly, and totally out of reach from your current perspective. If saying it out loud or writing it down gives you butterflies in your stomach like you’re about to drop from the peak of a roller coaster, then you’ll know you’re on the right track. 

So, what is the point? Again, remember that whether or not you achieve this goal is entirely irrelevant. Rather, the idea of an impossible goal is to create a clear vision for your life in the next year and then begin to align your daily life with this vision. For instance, if my impossible goal is to give a briefing to the White House on social & emotional learning, then I can start to ask myself if my daily actions are in alignment with this vision. 

Essentially – who do I need to be to give a briefing at the White House? What would my daily schedule look like if I were living into this vision? How would I dress? What type of food would I eat? How much sleep and exercise would I get? How would I treat others and myself? How would I walk, breath, and talk when I enter a room? And, when faced with a difficult decision, I can ask my future-white-house-briefing self what they would do in this situation? What thoughts, actions, relationships, and decisions would support me in becoming this person? 

The beauty of an impossible goal is that it simultaneously allows us to broaden our perspective on what is possible in the future while keeping us deeply grounded on what is important in the present moment. It leverages a top-down vision to support a bottom-up process of transformation and provides us with a yardstick to measure our daily choices against. (i.e. Would my white-house-briefing self sit and watch TV for hours on end, or would he choose to pick up a book instead? Would my white-house-briefing self be afraid to share his ideas publicly, or would he start taking risks?). You get the idea. 

Once you have established an impossible goal for yourself, consider sharing it with someone you trust to challenge and support you. Most people tend to vastly underestimate what is truly possible/impossible in their own lives, so be open to the idea that your friend may say something like “That’s totally possible for you – think bigger.” 

When you finally arrive at an impossible goal that stretches your capacity (and yes, feels a bit silly) then spend some time getting really detailed about the fulfillment of this goal. Imagine the whole scene as if it is happening now: What clothes are you wearing as you are giving your speech? Who is with you? How do you feel in that moment? What other sensory details can you imagine? Ideally, you can spend some time each day reflecting on this vision and then continually refining your choices, thoughts, and behaviors to align with your impossible goal. If you really dedicate yourself to this practice, you may be surprised at what feels possible by the end of the year!

4) Set a clear intention

If you’re fed up with the idea of new year’s resolutions, you may want to try a different twist on your resolution this year. Rather than setting a future goal that you may or may not live up to, consider what you need and how you would like to feel right now.

An intention can be thought of as a present-moment statement that supports you in achieving your goals. If a goal is a place to get to, then an intention is a place to come from. Reflect on the following questions:

  • What (or how) do I want to feel? 
  • What do I need most in my life right now? 
  • What do I want?

Rather than analyzing or overthinking your responses, trust the first answers that arise. Then, write your intention down in the form of a present-tense “I Am” statement. For instance, if I feel a lack of connection in my life my intention might read “I am surrounded by loving relationships.” If I have a lot I want to achieve this year, perhaps my intention is “I am motivated, energized, and inspired.” Or if I want to remember gratitude my intention could be something like “I have everything I need.” Your intention might even take the form of a single word, such as clarity, compassion, patience, or calm. 

Whatever you choose, take some time to really seal your intention in your mind, heart, and body for the coming year. You could place it on your mirror as a daily reminder, or use it as a mantra during moments of pause. A major difference between intentions and goals is that intentions do not require any seeking or striving to achieve. You simply set the intention, let it go, and trust that you have what it takes to realize this intention. 

Our Team | social emotional learning curriculum | sel lesson plansAbout the Author: Cody Wiggs is the author of Empowering Minds (A K-8 Mindfulness-Based SEL Curriculum), the Executive Director of Empowering Education, and a therapist specializing in the treatment of post-traumatic stress and treatment-resistant depression. He has been designing and implementing social-emotional programs for the last seven years. He has also been working with youth for the last decade in a variety of settings from school counseling, wilderness therapy, international service learning trips, community organizing, and private practice. Cody is a licensed professional counselor, a licensed school counselor, a certified yoga instructor, and a long-time practitioner of mindfulness. His work is informed by his travel and study of indigenous healing practices in SE Asia, South America, and North America.