The joy of a fresh new page
My family laugh at me, as whenever I decide to be more organised, I buy myself a new notebook or planner. As I open it, the crisp clean pages make me feel like this is a new start, a new beginning. They laugh because they know that in a few weeks’ time I will still be muddling through as always, and I won’t be able to remember quite what my new system of organisation was meant to be, but for me, a new notebook is symbolic of a fresh start.
One of the things I love about New Year is the same feeling of a new chapter of life about to unfold. I don’t make New Year’s Resolutions anymore, but I love the chance to reflect on the year that has gone and to think forward to what might be next year. This year, that fresh new page isn’t quite there, as we know that we still have months of the Covid pandemic affecting our lives, but we can now see some light at the end of the tunnel as the vaccines roll out. So maybe we can look back on what we’ve learnt in this year of disruption and pain and then look forward and start to plan for better things next year.
Best Possible Self Exercise
Recently, I tried out a Positive Psychology Intervention on myself called the “Best Possible Self” exercise (BPS) which allows us to imagine a future self where everything has gone well, where you are your ‘best possible self’. First, choose a point in the future – this could be a few months, a year or a few years ahead – choose which point feels right for you. Then sit and visualise it. Think about what you are doing, how you will feel, what has changed. Then pick up a pen and for about 15-20 minutes write down your vision. Let the words tumble out, a stream of consciousness, no editing or questioning, just get your thoughts down.
This is an exercise which has been the subject of many research papers, and there is good evidence that this process can increase your wellbeing, optimism and positive affect. It has been implemented in a number of ways – you could talk through your vision rather than write it, visualise then write or vice versa, repeat the exercise a number of times over days or weeks, but the fundamental remains the same. You are allowing yourself to visualise a possible future that could be achievable if all goes well.
My experience of the Best Possible Self exercise
Having learnt about the BPS exercise, I tried it myself, visualising and writing once a week over a period of five weeks. Repeating the exercise a number of times was interesting as I found myself focussing on different aspects of my life during different sessions. I focussed on thinking about the next year as with my grown-up children flying back and forth from the nest, I felt it was harder to visualise what might be, the longer ahead I looked.
In the first session, I found myself thinking about my involvement with Positive Psychology and where that might take me once I have finished my Master’s degree. This was a source of slight stress for me as I don’t have an existing job to which I want to apply what I have learned, so where do I go next? Imagining and visualising future possibilities without judging them helped me to feel more positive and optimistic about the future and helped me see a general direction in which to go, even if the specifics aren’t clear at this time. By the time I finished writing, I also felt less stressed and in a much better mood.
In the second session, I found myself thinking about my family, and how important it was to me to continue have the time for my grown-up children when they needed me. As the weeks went on, I found that I had time to explore different aspects of my life and to dig down the layers of what really mattered to me, so after the five weeks was up, I had a much clearer idea of where I was, and where I wanted to go.
From Visualising to Action
But does visualising the future make it more likely to happen? Psychologist Gabriele Oetingen has spent years researching motivation and has found that visualising alone is not enough. However, if you then consider the obstacles that you may encounter along the way and think as to how you might overcome them, then this is more likely to make your vision a reality. She has developed a technique called WOOP, which has four stages.
Wish – First of all, what do you really wish for? Focus on one idea, short term, achievable with some effort.
Outcome – Visualise the outcome. What would it look like? How would it feel?
Obstacles – Now think of what is likely to get in the way of your wish. Inner or outer obstacles – what might they be?
Plan – How can you deal with those obstacles? What will you do when they arise? This should be an “If…. Then…” plan.
In the instructions for WOOP it is clear that the intention is to use it to make small short term steps (planning for the next four weeks), that could be useful in moving towards a long term goal. Further details on WOOP, how to use it and the science behind it are on the website woopmylife.org. There’s even an app you can download and use to help keep track or your WOOPs.
My experience of putting it all together
Even without formally using the WOOP process, as I worked on my visualising my Best Possible Self over the five-week period, I started to see and to take some of the small steps that I needed to do to further explore my Positive Psychology career options. It also helped validate the importance of spending time with my family when the opportunity arose.
Another thing I realised as I worked through the BPS was how much of ‘normal’ life I value and had missed during this year of social distancing and lockdown. I feel like I have spent more time with a few friends and family (which has been lovely!) but I realised how many people there are that I would like to catch up with, and things that I would like to do when the world opens up again. With my WOOP hat on, I recognised that one of the obstacles to implementing doing fun things is that you often forget your good ideas and get caught up in the everyday and that they never actually happen. So I decided that one way to avoid this was to start a list of the things that I wanted to do, and the people I wanted to see when the world starts to return to normal.
So, I wrote a list. In one of my lovely notebooks. Somewhere.
I kid you not, I now have absolutely no recollection as to where I wrote this list. So I’m off to tidy up my desk, rifle through my notebooks, then I might sit down and WOOP a way to organise my notebooks so I don’t forget what I’ve done two weeks later.
In the meantime, I wish you all a Happy New Year and hope that you are in a position to see 2021 as a fresh new page in your life. I hope that my description of using BPS and WOOP might inspire you to reach forward with hope and optimism and maybe a little more organisation than I have demonstrated.
It might even be an occasion for a nice new notebook or planner. But if you are anything like me – just don’t tell the family…
Read more about Sara Cramoysan and her other articles HERE