Shortly after my husband and I got married in 2004, we began a December tradition of sending a family holiday letter. I know, I know. Everyone loves to hate these missives. Some are insufferable ("Johnny learned he was admitted to Harvard while we were vacationing in St. Bart’s...") and some are deadly boring ("I’m still at Acme Corp. Lisa is still at Infotech, but Dylan is now in 2nd grade...") I’m sure anyone reading our letter could offer the same critiques.
So why, in the social media era, do we still write this thing? To be honest, I don’t even send it to that many people. I write the letter more because it forces me to list what I did over the past year that actually mattered to me. It hones the year down to its highlights—the big images in the mosaic of our daily lives.
This isn’t a bad thing. Indeed, I soon realized that if I knew I would be writing an annual letter, I could start thinking about the letter ahead of time. I could start thinking about next year’s letter as I was writing this year’s letter. If I wrote a draft of 2013’s letter as I wrote 2012’s, I would have a pretty good road map of where I wanted my life to go.
So that’s what I’ve been doing. As I wrote about 2012, I dreamed up my 2013 highlights: I’d get a new non-fiction book contract. I’d finish the draft of my novel. I’d travel to Japan and Disney World. All of which happened in due course, and hence could be in the real 2013 letter if I wanted. As I’m writing it, I’m pondering 2014.
Even if you’re not in the habit of sending a holiday letter, I think this approach—thinking through life in terms of how you’d describe it in such a letter—has a lot going for it. By thinking at the beginning of the year about what you’ll remember at the end of the year, you nudge yourself to make things happen. Because I know I want one of my 2014 highlights to be a trip to where my family is from in the Netherlands, I’ve already started looking at houses on Home Away. That, in turn, is making me quite happy as I pump relatives for information at holiday get-togethers, and daydream about this vacation during work breaks now.
To be sure, life is ultimately unknowable. You may have grand plans for one job, but end the year in a different one. You may plan to mention your successful kitchen remodeling project in the holiday letter, and wind up living in a different state when a relative suddenly needs to be cared for.
But plans are valuable even if life changes your plans. Knowing where you want to go helps you realize what matters to you, and focuses your energy on the things you can control.
If you want 2014 to be your best year ever, think through what would earn it that designation. What would you like to be telling friends about at next year’s holiday party? Write down these highlights. It need not be much, just as much as would fit in a short paragraph in next year’s holiday card. Then think through what you need to do over the next 12 months to make those dreams a reality. There’s probably much you can get started on now if you’re mindful of the future. Because time will be filled with something whether you choose what to fill it with or not. Asking what you’d like to fill the time with increases the chances that the 8,760 hours of 2014 are memorable enough to actually want to describe next year.