3 better ways to gauge how much you've accomplished in 2017

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Studies show that reflecting back on struggles and problem solving achievements leaves us happier. Copyright Hero Images Getty Images/Hero Images
By Brianna Steinhilber with NBC News
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Looking back at the past year with a different lens may set you up for more success in the new year.

It seems like we were just sitting outside enjoying a lazy summer barbecue, and suddenly there is one day left in 2017. As the year comes to a close, chances are you'll find yourself thinking back over all you've accomplished (or didn't), and maybe even trying to remember what exactly you had mentally noted as your "goals" for the New Year as you rang in 2017.

Unfortunately, many of us lose touch with those goals soon after the ball drops.

According to a recent Facebook survey, only 3 percent of people surveyed said that they always achieve their resolutions, with a clear majority saying that they only sometimes or less frequently achieve them. Whether you didn't lose the weight you had hoped to or weren't able to nab that promotion at work, it can be discouraging to end yet another year without tangible accomplishments to celebrate.

Even for those of us who were able to move some things from the resolution to the accomplishment list, experts say that looking back at the past year with a different lens may be worthwhile.

Before the ball drops, ask yourself these questions, and use the insight (and mood boost) to step into the New Year on the right foot.

Look at the hardships you've overcome (instead of what you've accomplished)

We tend to look through the past year for positive accomplishments, not failures of struggles. But a study published in the journal Memory found that people who reflected on their problem solving achievements and "moments of defining their identity" showed a boost in self esteem, happiness and sense of meaning in life. The researchers found that the mood boost was related to feelings of resilience and self-exploration or introspection.

"It's important to analyze not just our successes over the past year, but also our struggles and set backs. Managing the inevitable hardships life hands us along its path enables us to cultivate resilience and home our skills at adaptation," says psychotherapist, Dr. Paul L. Hokemeyer, J.D., Ph.D. "One of Darwin's most important observations of successful species was not the intensity of their strength, but rather their capacity to adapt to challenging circumstances. Studying the hardships in our lives and our reactions to them enables us to cultivate are skill at adaptivity."

Essentially, looking back at how you overcame roadblocks or hardships can make you feel more prepared to take on anything that comes your way in the new year. So take a second to reflect back over 2017 and ask yourself: What hardships have I overcome? How did I overcome them? And what lessons did I learn from the experience?

Expand your scope

You may be tempted to gauge your progress by how the past year alone has transpired, but experts encourage you to expand your scope. Look back over the past five years instead.

We tend to choose goals that are way too ambitious — which sets ourselves up for failure. But by looking back over a five-year period, you'll be able to note more significant change and noteworthy accomplishments — like job growth, relationship successes and health progress.

Success is more akin to a jungle gym than a ladder.

But setting ambitious goals does have an upside: A study published in the Journal of Consumer Research found that people who set lofty goals for themselves tend to be more satisfied than those with lower expectations.

So Hokemeyer recommends expanding the scope in a similar way when it comes to setting goals for the future. "Setting annual goals while valuable, often leaves us disappointed and causes us to sell our selves short. This year, focus on a longer term horizon," he says. "Instead of limiting yourself to a year, cast your gaze five years in the future. By allocating yourself more time to accomplish your objectives, you'll be able to set larger more resonate goals and improve your chances of success in accomplishing them."

Piggyback on the things you did accomplish to set goals going forward

However small, there are things that you have accomplished — even if they weren't on your initial goal list when you watched the ball drop last year. Taking note of these things, and using them to inform your goals for 2018, is a smart strategy to set yourself up for success next year.

"While we still cling to the fantasy that 'overnight success' exists, the truth is: it doesn't. Success occurs through persistence and hard work. It involves steps forward, and steps back. It's more akin to a jungle gym than a ladder," says Hokemeyer. "It's also important to acknowledge that it occurs incrementally through establishing and building upon productive habits while simultaneously minimizing unproductive ones. So instead of making big sweeping pronouncements that dramatically alter your course, tweak successful habits to subtlety move you in a more resonate and rewarding direction."

That 5k you ran this year can morph into two this year (or perhaps even a half marathon). Or maybe you were successful in bringing your own lunch to work to save money, and can set a goal to replace that pricey morning latte habit with coffee at home to keep the savings growing. Use the momentum of little successes to inspire new goals — over time the tiny adjustments in your habits can add up to big change. And doesn't "make coffee at home in the morning" sound a lot less intimidating than drop 20 pounds?


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