An action plan for the new year

Dec. 29, 2008

by Ivan Raconteur

New Year's resolutions are a complete waste of time. Most have a shorter life-expectancy than the bubbles in a glass of cheap champagne. They are often vague wishes, rather than actual resolutions, and hearing about them can bore our family and acquaintances to tears.

In spite of this, many people feel compelled to adopt something resembling resolutions at this time of year. For these people, I offer this arbitrary, unscientific, and slightly slanted alternative. It is an action plan that can be adopted in lieu of making flimsy resolutions.

Following, in no particular order, are the Curmudgeon's top 10 steps for a happy new year.

1) Laugh at yourself at least once each day. Most of us take ourselves far too seriously, and it is difficult to have fun if we are over-estimating our own importance. Life is a cabaret, so lighten up and enjoy the ride.

2) Make a point to compliment someone every day. We have all met people who are good at this. They go through life like little rays of sunshine. They have learned to look for the positive in everyone they meet.

This is foreign to most of us, but if you think about it, everyone likes these people because they make us feel better about ourselves. Five minutes with these birds is enough to set us up for the day. We appreciate the fact that they take the time to notice little things we have done. For most of us, this doesn't come naturally. We have to work at it. Making a commitment to compliment someone at least once a day will force us to look for the good in others, and it might just become a habit.

3) Spend five minutes each day reading. This is a purely selfish suggestion. As a writer, I need readers, and people don't spend nearly enough time reading these days. Reading is nourishment for our minds, just as food is to our bodies. I suppose it helps if we do nothing more than read the back of the cereal packet at breakfast.

The best thing, of course, is to read a good book. If we read just one page per day, by the end of the year we will be up to page 365. Think about it. Of course, anyone reading this column is probably well above average, reading-wise, and is probably already consuming the recommended daily allowance of reading material.

4) Challenge yourself and take risks. This doesn't mean you should climb a mountain or run with scissors. It can be as simple as taking yourself out of your normal routine.

It might be a matter of sitting somewhere other than your normal spot in class, in church, or at lunch. We are creatures of habit. Shaking things up and doing something different, can force us to come into contact with people we don't ordinarily talk to, and we might just learn something.

Another way to challenge ourselves is to take a class. There are plenty of inexpensive or even free classes out there if we take the time to look for them. Not only can we learn from this, we might just have some fun along the way. Better still, teach a class. Sharing our knowledge and experience with others can be rewarding in unexpected ways.

5) Practice active listening. Many of us could use some help in this area. We tend to be better at passive listening, which means we may or may not pick up important information that is sprinkled among the noise that bombards us all day long. Active listening involves filtering out the noise and actually listening to what someone has to say. It probably means asking questions to probe and clarify to be sure we are getting the message. Be prepared, though. You may shock your friends or your spouse if you start really listening to them. They are probably not used to it, and they may wonder what you are up to.

6) Take some steps toward your life goals. Instead of just wishing you can do something “some day” take steps now to make it happen. If, for example, you have always wanted to travel to Paris and sit in a cafe with a view of the Eiffel tower, you could begin by putting aside a few coins to start a savings account for the journey. Or, you could start learning some basic French to help you communicate when you get there. We are much more likely to accomplish our goals if we write them down and take steps to achieve them, rather than just dreaming about them.

7) Take the road less traveled. We tend to go to the same places and do the same things. By changing our route, we might discover new things or see familiar things from a fresh perspective. This variety can also make life more interesting and improve our creative thinking. I don't know why this works, but it does. If nothing else, it can help to keep us from getting stuck in a rut, and ruts are good things to avoid.

8) Spend a few minutes each day in silence. It does us good to give our brains a break with no distractions. We need some quiet time with no television, no radio, no cell phones, no MP3 players. If we think of our brain as the central sorting office, it is easy to see how a few minutes without new external inputs can do wonders in terms of letting us organize our thoughts and re-focus our energy.

9) Practice random acts of kindness. There is no doubt that 2009 will be a challenging year for all of us. We will need to work together. One way to do this is to do some small things to help those around us. We might even find that by helping others, we are really helping ourselves. An “every man for himself” attitude isn't going to work in these troubled times. We are all in this together.

10) Avoid being a sheep. This is the most important step of all. Beware of taking advice from newspaper columnists, talk show hosts, and anyone who writes for a self-help magazine. When it comes down to it, we all have to do our own dying, so we might as well do our own living, and that includes thinking for ourselves.