Mindful New Year’s Resolutions: Approaches for First Responders

By

Crawford Coates

Each year, our planet travels once around the sun. At the tail end of that cycle comes what astronomers term “The Holiday Season”: a time of merriment, consumption and occasional perspective-gathering. As part of this celestial revolution, on the 365th day, many first responders will vow to make personal change in the coming year. And at least as many, it seems, they will fail. This is not to discourage you. Quite the contrary.

For this is a noble impulse! The annual rite of self-improvement appears across cultures, creeds and time. Much is made of failure rates, and reflecting on our past too much can be problematic (e.g., rumination, regret, shame). But to do so with an eye to the future, keying in on effective action, this is empowering—life-changing even.

So how do you, a busy first responder, get your New Year’s Resolution right this time?

A Mindful Approach

The term mindfulness as commonly understood comes from a few sources. While many might think of mindfulness emphasizing the “moment” or the “eternal now,” its Buddhist root, sati, means to remember or retain important information. After all, the biggest impediment to realizing in the “moment” is forgetting it exists—because of work shifts, deadlines, desires, laziness, illness and all the other trappings of workaday life.

This is not to say work shifts and deadlines and so forth aren’t real or don’t matter or that thoughts should somehow not arise in our heads. Certainly, these are real and often important things. What a mindfulness practice seeks to impart, however, is an acknowledgement and acceptance of the miracle that quietly underpins it all. Another word for this is gratitude. Not cheap gratitude (i.e., “Stoked they have lasagna for the lunch special!”), but that thorough gratitude that comes from being truly alive. Mindfulness practice might be considered a reminder of this ever-present wonder.

This is in fact common among faith traditions. We take a moment to pause, amid the hustle and bustle, to remember our unearned gifts. Examples include fasting periods, grace at meals, daily prayers, meditation and so forth. Implicit in each of these acts is self-acceptance. It might sound overly basic but worth keeping in mind: You will be the foundation of your own self-improvement. Not that Navy SEAL from the podcast or that gal at the gym or even some imagined version of yourself as you once might have been—you, as you are now. That’s who’s going to show up every day.

Make a Plan

Now that you’re in this rather stable and sober frame of mind, what you see for yourself in the coming year is really up to you. Think of a New Year’s Resolution as two intersecting concepts: 1) a reflection upon the year that has been; and 2) a projection onto the year arriving. This is big stuff. A year is an impossibly long time to recall with any sort of real fidelity; and a one year hence is a lifetime away. That’s sort of the point. This is the highlight reel. You’re going to have to focus on what matters most to you as you look back. You’re also hopefully going to notice patterns that may have eluded you in the day-to-day scramble. Contemplation lays the groundwork for a realistic, motivated resolution for the coming year.

Contemplation lays the groundwork for a realistic, motivated resolution for the coming year

The work of year-long self-improvement, on the other hand, will come down to small and regular decisions made day after day, moment by moment. Following are some practical suggestions for success.

  • Think small. It’s fine to think big about your future, but it’s critical to tie it all back to action. This isn’t daydreaming; the bigger the ambition, the more detailed the plan must be. Because the smaller the steps, the more likely you will actually take them. Remove any roadblocks to progress. For example, if you want to go to the gym in the morning, have your bag and meal ready to go the night before. Accept now that sustainable progress is slow and steady. Plan ahead and keep it simple.
  • Be kind to yourself. Beating up on yourself is sort of the definition of self-defeating. There will be days when you feel distracted or tired or angry. That’s perfectly normal and expected. Taking a break at such times is fine. What we don’t want to do is give up or create excuses. Show yourself, and your fellows, compassion as you work toward your goal.
  • Make it social. You don’t need to share everything with the world, but social support can be so motivating. If, for example, you want to read more books in the coming year, join a book club or post your thoughts about your reading to social media. Being around people who are similarly motivated is inspirational. Don’t be afraid to be honest.
  • Quantify progress. For me, marking progress in a calendar—an actual paper calendar—is a powerful visual reminder of what I’ve done as well as what I have yet to do. Something about marking it with pen up feels cathartic and real. There are also digital calendars and myriad apps that make marking progress easy and fun. Whatever works for you, keep yourself honest by marking progress.
  • Acknowledge commitment. This resolution clearly matters to you, so take a moment to formally say it. Write your resolution down or tell someone you trust. Don’t just say what you intend to do, but also why you intend to do it.

Conclusion

New Year’s Resolutions aren’t required. But it’s often the case we look back on life and wonder, “Where did all the time go?” Measured out in years, months, days or moments, time is no doubt passing for us all. Taking stock of that, and then working to make the world a better place, seems to be the point. May you and your loved ones have a joyous and safe new year in all that you do!

About Crawford Coates

Crawford Coates, MPPA, is the content marketing manager for Lexipol. Prior to this role, he was publisher at Calibre Press, a publisher and trainer for law enforcement, and an editor at PennWell Public Safety. He is a co-founder of Below 100 and author of the book “Mindful Responder: The First Responder’s Field Guide to Improved Resilience, Fulfillment, Presence, & Fitness–On & Off the Job.”