Happy Birthday, isn’t it?

If you take care that every year of your life is enjoyable you will have lived an enjoyable life in the end.

Birthday. Whether you like celebrating yours or not – most likely you will not forget the date when you turn a year older. Independent from all the rituals that you are following – or trying to ignore – the very date of your birth is present in your mind. And even if you are not much into celebrating your aging, every time you need to fill in your birth date in any form, you are reminded of the progress of time.

The days around the birthday are a good timeframe to pause your life and invest a few minutes into reflection.

Reflection of the past with all of your accomplishments, successes, losses and failures.

A sharp look at the here and now.

And an inspiring envisioning of the years ahead with so much potential for your dreams and hopes to come true.

Let’s have a look at these three perspectives and get some practical tips on how to actually invest in yourself during this time.

Reflection on the past

Let’s assume you are doing this on an annual basis, then you reflect only back on the last year. If you are at a major milestone of your life like 20th, 30th, 40th etc. birthday it might be worthwhile to take a longer timespan into account.

Take some paper and a pen, find yourself a cosy place and sit down. Calm down for a few moments and enjoy the very fact that you now invest in one of the most important people in your life – yourself.

You are the starting point

Start by drawing a person in the middle of the paper or by writing your name in the midst. You are the starting point – and from there the mind-map-style starts. Now start to write areas of your current life situation around you – you might want to circle them if you are a more creative person.

Here are some ideas: family, friends, job, sports, health, career, relationships, emotional well-being, social work, hobby

Take at least 4 areas of your life that you want to reflect on. And be bold. Take also those areas where you like to be more fulfilled or more successful.

How are you doing?

If you have defined your areas you want to focus on, write to each area what you liked during the last year. Where have you been successful? What did you achieve? What made this area of your life special in the last year?

If you are unfamiliar with writing stuff about your life on a piece of paper, you might want to start by taking a few notes and the further you get start writing sentences. Add to each event or bullet why it is on your list and how you currently feel about it.

When you are done with positive things, start to write down also the bad experiences. What didn’t work out? Whom did you lose in your life? Where did you fail? Be honest to yourself and admit how you are feeling.

Side note for business people: Emotions are valuable indicators where you are currently at - and if you need change. Admit when you are feeling sad, frustrated, angry, disappointed. Although it is uncommon in the business context to talk about feelings, it is a real asset when you check on your emotional well-being every once in a while. If you are happy on the inside, it is most likely that you will display the happiness on the outside and be even better in your business tasks at hand. Unluckily this is true vice versa. 

One year on a piece of paper

Now look at your mind map. How do you feel?

Since this is a practical guide and not an entertainment text, I just take the freedom to ask you again: How do you feel when you see your past year?

What would you like to take with you into the next year?

What served you until today but now needs to leave? Say goodbye to these habits / situations / emotions. It’s just the right time.

Here and Now

Take a moment to be proud of yourself! You just revisited the last year, showed gratitude for your successes, looked at some unpleasant moments, said goodbye to a few things. For your soul it’s like the clearance of the basement. It isn’t the most entertaining thing to do but it creates room in your mind for new things. Well done!

I can see you smile. That’s good.

Let’s dive into your future.

Envisioning the future

A new year lies before you. How do you want to use it?

Check on the categories of your mindmap again. Which category should stay and which one(s) leave? Is there any other area that you want to add?

When you are done with setting the scene, write to each area what you would like to achieve. Which area should be your focus on? Where do you need growth? What area do you enjoy most?

I like to encourage you to get a little crazy and visionary in this moment – reality will settle in soon enough. Write down all the things you like to be doing. What makes your heart leap?

Remember, you are the game changer of your everyday life. Take your annual pause to reflect the past year and adjust your priorities to make sure that the upcoming year will be enjoyable.

Trick your brain

Change your thoughts and you change your world.

The human brain is amazing. Even in the midst of adversity the brain is capable of recalling pleasant pictures. And while riding the emotional rollercoaster we can get to ease just by envisioning a calm and uplifting episode of our past.

I am convinced this knowledge makes a difference in your daily routines. And if you use it for your own good, you will become more successful in life. Join me in this thought experiment.

Just pick any stressful situation: an unpleasant feedback of your boss, that furious call of a customer, your child screaming down the neighbourhood for no reason. Immediately your brain switches to stress-mode – you can only focus on the bad, your creativity is limited, you want to run away. All those reactions are totally normal. The human brain is programmed like this. If we get into stress, we want to get out of it. Quickly.

Unluckily running off isn’t possible most of the times. So we suffer in the situation. And even if the stressor is gone, we ponder on the bad feeling; replaying the stress situation again and again.

Interestingly we can keep the bad feeling for quite a long time although the situation has passed. While hitting replay in our minds again and again, we also revive the bad mood attached.

If that is true for stressful memories, why not using it for good!?

Change your thoughts and you change your world.

Norman Vincent Peale – Pastor & Author

Pastor Peale nails it down quite precise: instead of rerunning the same hurtful thoughts, the human brain is capable of activating positive recollections. And while thinking of the good old day(s) the emotion slowly follow.

How does it look like to put this into practice?

Keep an assorted collection of your finest memories. Maybe that marvelous sunset at the beach while your feet sunk into soft sand? Perhaps that good laughter with your closest friends over dinner the other night?

Whatever it is, make sure it is easy to recall. Whenever you get into the stressful situation, set yourself an inner “stop!”, relaunch your memory and take a moment to regrow the positive feeling.

Remember: you are not a victim of your (bad) environment and the emotions attached to hard situations. You can keep your inner peace. And by staying calm, be able to think creatively, find new solutions and make good decisions.

Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.

Proverbs 4, 23

I wonder whether Pastor Peale is referencing to this bible verse when he is writing about positive thinking. Only a sound mind and a peaceful heart are able to make solid decisions. Decisions that influence our lives.

I encourage you to take care of your emotions. Be the guard of your heart and stop negative thoughts early. Instead turn to powerful memories and refill your emotional reservoir during the day.

Will your tombstone inspire others?

Make sure your name is associated with positive attributes that people love to remember.

Lately I had a chat with a colleague coming from another continent – consequently having an unfamiliar name to an European ear. Immediately he was offering a German name as substitute. Since the name was so special – lets say old-school – I asked him laughing why he had chosen it. “Easy”, he said, “I went jogging on the graveyard regularly and I saw that particular name so often on tombstones that I got inspired to pick it for myself.”¬†

“Wow. Inspired by a tombstone”, I thought – not sure whether to be impressed or awkwardly moved. 

And then my thoughts began to wander… what will be written on my tombstone when the day of tombstone-necessity comes? Will it be inspiring? With what characteristics do I want to be remembered? 

While I continued thinking, I realized that positive remembrance is not limited to death – actually I can recall several leaders in my life whose major attributes I easily can determine and whose attitude impressed me in a way that I wanted to be like them in that particular behavior. If I had to sum up what made them special, most certainly I put on the list: authentic behavior, a trustworthy charisma and interest in people. 

Authentic Behavior 

Despite the fact that I didn’t like all facets of my leaders, I could always rely on their authenticity. The mixture of strengths and flaws made them unique, approachable and – simply put – human. They used to communicate when they were having a bad day. So it was easy to know that a more quiet behavior didn’t mean that there is a problem around. 

In addition, all of them had a basic set of behaviour you could rely on. They were approachable for team members, always open-minded and friendly. One leader put it this simple: don’t scream at people and don’t throw stuff. 

Don’t scream at people and don’t throw stuff. 

A Leader

Trustworthy Charisma 

People I can recall as influential leaders in my life all had a certain charisma. I don’t think of an unspecific atmosphere or esoteric type of feeling, but rather a respect that rose in people who have worked with these people over a longer period of time. Foremost this respect was fueled by a predictability of the leaders behaviour. Everyone knew how this person would react to a specific situation (mainly calm, well-thought-through but clear), and this predictability would allow team members to take decisions. Team members could predict whether they will have the backing of their boss – and this led to freedom, respect and trust. 

Interest in people

Last but not least, leaders I recall as inspiring always had an interest in me. And in others. They “saw” their team and spoke to people on an individual level. It’s probably one of the hardest parts – having an intense job with extreme responsibilities and still take time to show interest in people. To stop at the coffee kitchen for 30 seconds just to ask how it is going or to pad someone shoulder for great work the day before. 

But if you think back – you remember the names of exactly those people. People who saw you. People who were interested in you and your well-being. 

And even when their names will be written on a tombstone, they will be remembered.

How to … appreciate people

Appreciation needs to be precise, immediate and honest in order to motivate and touch a person’s heart.

When I lived in the US the term “Appreciated” was used around me daily. Whenever I did something helpful, I got an “I appreciate your help” or when I hold a door for someone, a mumbled “appreciated” found its way to my ear. It only took a few days and I was so used to the term – even used it myself – that it quickly turned into an empty phrase. 

It reminds me of a chat I had the other day with a colleague, who actually got a positive comment from his project-lead but it seemed so hollow that it wasn’t perceived as honest appreciation.

So, if positive words themselves are not enough to be perceived as real appreciation what is needed? When does a person feel appreciated? 

The questions in combination highlight: there is a sender and a receiver of appreciation. Both people might perceive “appreciation” quite differently. Gary Chapman describes 5 types of how people express and receive appreciation differently [that is: receiving gifts, quality time, acts of service, physical touch and words of affirmation]. Feel free to dig deeper into these 5 types and discover how you actually receive appreciation.

In this article I will only focus on words of affirmation as a way to express and receive appreciation.

When is a positive feedback perceived as true appreciation? 

Preciseness

When you want to appreciate your team member, tell them precisely what you liked and what you want to honor. I recall team meetings after which I got a “well done” and nothing more. “Well done” is so easily said that the receiver cannot even be sure whether you mean it or not. Rather tell someone “I like how you prepared and designed the agenda”, “Thank you for investing your time to prepare for the meeting” or “I was impressed how you handled the critical client question. Well done.” The thought of a precise sentence requires much more thought of yourself and it ensures that you do not slip in a half-heartedly “appreciated”. 

Immediateness

Whenever you see a noteworthy performance, give positive feedback instantly. First of all this will ensure that you can be precise, but you also eliminate the danger of forgetting. Personally, I have decided to appreciate and encourage colleagues always, when I see something cool. Be it a good call moderation, a thought-through newsletter, a well-designed slide or just a beautiful outfit. And the result is always the same: a happy smile. Even more, if you are working with the appreciated people on a regular basis, you build a track record of trust which you will need when you have to give critical feedback at some point. Therefore: appreciate whenever possible and invest in the relationship with your team member. 

Honesty 

This might be the most crucial one. It leads to the underlying motivation of your positive words: Why do you express words of affirmation? Sadly I have met a lot of people who have learned appreciation as a “leadership tool” or even worse as a manipulation-technique. But I am convinced that this attitude backfires because you will “try” to appreciate people and won’t get any result. If you want your team member to feel appreciated, you have to be honest in your motives towards that person. To create this “feeling” of appreciation, your words must be surrounded with an acceptance of your team member or the one you are appreciating. 

I want to encourage you: Start today with uplifting, precise, immediate and honest appreciation! Invest thereby in your relationships and build up the colleagues, team members and even friends around you. I know, it needs a lot of training and thought to nail these precious appreciation moments. But the result is worth the effort. 

What do you think? What else is needed for a positive feedback to be felt as true appreciation? I am eager to get your response.