I used to dread New Year’s Eve: finding a good party to go to, staying up too late, looking for someone to kiss, running the gauntlet of drunks and the sobriety stations on the way home. It was like setting up one last potential epic fail as the year died… just for fun. Then three years ago I read an article about vision boards and decided not to drag myself to a party for once. Instead I spent New Year’s Eve in front of a fire, with a bottle of wine, a stack of magazines, scissors and glue, looking for words and pictures that represent what I really want the next year to be about. It’s become my tradition.
The first vision board I made was a collage that represented a lot of things: more money, more travel, more meditation. But as I’ve created boards each year, I find that I’m better at honing in on specific goals. You can’t do everything, so what are the most important changes you want to make in the coming year? It’s daunting to get honest, and to focus. If you cut out a bunch of crap that would be nice to have, it is just an arts and crafts project. But to name what you want, and to find the right words and images, means that you’re owning that goal and are responsible for taking the steps to make it happen. It’s both scary and exciting. The year I posted a picture of the Northern Lights, I saw them in Tromsø, Norway. I had that image in my mind and I knew I had to make it real.
It's daunting to get honest, and to focus. If you cut out a bunch of crap that would be nice to have, it [your vision board] is just an arts and crafts project.
Research suggests that you’re 42 percent more likely to achieve your goals if you write them down, a percentage that rises when you share your goals with others. Another study revealed that people are 90 percent more likely to accomplish goals if the goals are specific and challenging. So why doesn’t everybody get clear about naming their goals and representing them in words or images? Basically, every goal that we haven’t accomplished has barriers—and a lot of those barriers are invisible, like self-sabotaging patterns or fears we don’t acknowledge. We can uncover some of these barriers, however, by doing another creative thing that life and career coaches often recommend: telling stories.
Tell your story to a friend
You have a story: where you grew up, what your family was like, what you loved to do when you were a kid, your favorite books and movies, and dreams for the future. If you tell your story to someone else and they write it down, they’re likely to recognize themes and patterns you never saw because you’re so engrained you can’t see them. I had a friend who always struggled financially and never realized that the family she grew up in had harsh stereotypes about wealthy people. Deep down, she thought that wanting to be financially comfortable was bad. I’ve known other people who never aimed for the job they wanted because they feared the disappointment of not getting it would be too much to bear. Instead, they toiled for years at jobs that paid the bills, but never make them excited to go to work. In my own life, I spent years feeling crushed and sad about my romantic failures—until I finally owned up to the fact that I chose partners who were emotionally unavailable, unwittingly repeating patterns I experienced with my parents. We tell ourselves so many stories about why we picked this job or that partner that we surround each decision in a cloud of rationalization that obscures the patterns.
- Why did I decide to pursue this career? Who or what influenced me?
- Was this what I wanted to do? If so, why? If not, why didn’t I go for what I really wanted?
- What was my first job? Why did I take it? What were the results?
- What did I love or hate about that first job?
- Why did I change jobs? What was I looking for? How did I look for it? Did I find it?
His focus is on making a career change, but you can do this for any aspect of your life, like relationships or improving your health. Of course, you have to be brutally honest. Like, did you really stop going to the gym because you didn’t have time? Or did you find it depressing because everybody else seemed to be in better shape than you? Unless you hold your own feet to the fire about the truth behind your decisions, you’ll probably keep repeating old patterns. And if you do discover a truth that’s, well, uncomfortable, you can at least make adjustments. Maybe, for example, consider working out at home until you feel ready to take on the gym rats.
You have to be brutally honest. Like, did you really stop going to the gym because you didn't have time? Or did you find it depressing because everybody else seemed to be in better shape than you?
Record your dreams
Carl Jung was the big proponent of writing down your dreams. He wrote, in Man and His Symbols, that it drove him crazy that other therapists considered dreams the day’s detritus, just a bunch of psychic discharge overnight. If other scientists ignored this much data in their research, he argued, their conclusions would have no merit. Jung noted that when we have thoughts or feelings we’re uncomfortable with (like, “I feel like the Pillsbury Doughgirl at the gym”), we shove them into our unconscious and cover them with “logical” arguments, burying the evidence. But when we dream, we process some of those feelings we’ve been avoiding.
Jung recommended people write dreams down consistently. At first, they’ll seem filled with the day’s business—the friend you’re having coffee with tomorrow, your piles of laundry, and so on. But if you keep writing them down, patterns emerge. It’s possible to find outside references that tell you what various symbols mean in dreams but you’ll get more insight if you stop and ask yourself: What does that symbol mean to me? I kept dreaming of toilets—and all that goes with them. Toilets?! What does a toilet….ohhhhh. I realized I was masking some feelings of shame. I’ve also had regular dreams about having to choose between two houses—one that is opulent but cavelike because it is surrounded by trees, and another that is a little shabby but filled with sunlight. I finally realized I had this dream whenever I was making a choice about taking my life in a new direction. A friend told me that whenever he dreams about having car problems, he knows he is procrastinating on a project.
In my experience, you have to write dreams down as soon as you wake up, before they evaporate. It’s often only in writing them down that you can see the symbols that stand out the most starkly—where your unconscious self is trying to clue your ego self into what’s up on the dark side of your mind. Dreams can reveal what you truly want, or what’s actually holding you back, which sure makes going to sleep a lot more interesting.
Make your 2018 vision board
There’s a difference between making a vision board and tossing out some New Year’s resolutions while you’re eating black eyed peas (it’s a Southern thing). A vision board requires an investment of time. It requires you to keep magazines ready for the search, for one thing. Thoughtfully, you leaf through them, looking for words and pictures that speak to you. A person meditating or rock climbing, a landscape that speaks to you. Headlines with words that speak your secret mantras: freedom, commitment, travel, love. You rifle through them, cut them out, then sift through them again before gluing them to your board. All along you and ask yourself…is that really something I want this year? Then push your brain a little harder to ask “Why do I want that?” And then: “If I want that, why haven’t I done something about it before?”
There's a difference between making a vision board and tossing out some New Year's resolutions while you're eating black eyed peas (it's a Southern thing). A vision board requires an investment of time.
Part of creating a vision board is about paying attention to what you want your life to be about, and to take your thoughts beyond work, and dishes and laundry, and the TV shows that you binge-watch. The process of creating the board wakes you up a little and helps you make a commitment to yourself about achieving each thing you’ve deemed worthy of the board. After gluing the pictures together in a design I think is creative, I pull out paints and crayons to tie it all together. When you’re done, hang it somewhere you’ll see it, so that it serves as a reminder of your goals and the decisions you need to make to reach them.
2017 was supposed be about getting centered, getting clear, getting in alignment with my truth. If that’s what I was doing, it looks more like a car wreck than the images I have of women meditating and dancing in the sunset. Maybe what happened on the inside actually necessitated things breaking on the outside. In some ways, starting the fire, pouring the wine, pulling out the magazines will be my retreat to figure it all out. I need it. The earth is about to start another revolution around the sun. I want to be ready.
Susan Lahey is a journalist who lives in Austin and writes about everything that piques her curiosity including travel, technology, work, business, art, sustainability, and cultivating deep, messy, exquisite humanness in the digital age.