Dr. Jo Ann Unger, C. Psych.
Should We be Making New Year's Resolutions this Year?
The short answer to this question is…. Maybe.
The turning of the calendar to a new year has been a time for many of us to make personal changes for self-improvement, to take stock of the past year and make plans for how we want to live in the next year. This can be a useful practice, if done thoughtfully, kindly and with a conscious plan.
However, this year is not like a lot of years we have experienced before. We have been asked to make so many changes and often without much notice. We have had to carry the weight of a global pandemic on our shoulders. This has added considerable stress, burden, loss and grief for many of us; more for some than for others. Our resources for just managing our day-to-day lives has been depleted.
And so, maybe this year, we give ourselves a break from the pressure of self-improvement. Making change, even when we have chosen it, requires energy and resources. We have been adapting a lot lately and so maybe we can allow ourselves to conserve our resources. There are likely more changes we will need to face and adapt to in the near future, as the pandemic continues to unfold.
There are a few exceptions I might make to this recommendation. It is possible that there are small changes we can make to help us increase our internal resources, resiliency and joy. These just might be worth the effort required to make them.
For example, some of our current coping strategies may, unfortunately, be sapping our resources unnecessarily, even though they feel good in the moment. This might include indulging in alcohol and using other substances more than is helpful, sleeping too much and spending too much time on screens. While these strategies certainly help us feel better in the moment, over the longer term, they may be doing more harm than good. The energy needed to reduce some of these coping strategies, may be a good investment; we gain more energy than we lose.
We may want to consider adding some small practices or activities that will help build our resilience and strength to tackle stressors that may come our way in 2022. This might include things like adding physical activity, social interaction, mindfulness practices, activities that bring us joy, and meaningful activities in line with our values. Research has shown that each of these kinds of activities help to build resilience and help us manage stress more effectively. A cost-benefit analysis will need to be done to assess if adding one of these types of activities is worth the effort for the benefit we will gain. For each person, the answer will be different.
So, if you are able, take time to reflect on your current coping and health and mental health behaviours. Are you using a coping strategy that is causing more harm than good? Is there a healthy activity you can add to your life that will give back to you by increasing your resources and resiliency? If so, consider some of the recommendations below on how to set and follow through on your personal goal. If you just do not have it in you this year and you need to work on accepting yourself just as you are, please do so without guilt and with self-compassion.
1. Make sure your goal is in line with your values
Our motivation to make change is strongest and healthiest when our goals are consistent and come from our own values and priorities rather than from pressure from others or society. We are highly social beings and so we are certainly motivated by our relationships with others and to do things to increase our sense of belonging. However, the best way to reap the benefits of increased resilience and resources is if the changes we make are in line with our values. For support and more on this topic I would recommend Acceptance and Commitment Therapy resources including the work by Dr. Dayna Lee-Baggley (https://drleebaggley.com/covid-19-pandemic-resources/).
2. Check your motivation and resources
As we set our goal and develop a plan to achieve it, we need to assess whether we have the internal motivation and resources to get it done. It does not make sense to set a goal we have little intention or do not have the resources to complete. In fact, setting a goal and then failing to achieve it will cause us to feel worse than not having set the goal in the first place.
Here are some questions to ask ourselves to assess our motivation and resources.
Is this a change I truly want for myself or am I doing it due to outside pressures such as family, friends, or media?
Do I want this change because it will increase my sense of well-being and health or am I doing this to punish myself?
Do I know what it takes to actually achieve this goal and am I willing and have the resources to actually do these things?
Do the pros of making this change outweigh the cons for me?
Only set out to make change when it is truly what you want to do, you have the energy and ability to take the necessary action steps and, this year, will lead to increased resources in the long run. Motivation for change is healthiest when it comes from an internal desire for change and is rooted in a sense of self-compassion rather than criticism.
3. Make a SMART goal
Goals are more likely to be achieved if we really take time to describe them well and make plans about how they will be put into action. One way to do that is to set a SMART goal. There are a number of different versions of SMART goals out there that are helpful. Here is one version.
Specific: We want our goal to be as specific as possible; outline the when, where and how of our goal. If a goal is vague, it is more difficult to achieve. If our goal is large, long-term or involves multiple steps, we may need to break it down into smaller, specific steps.
My Own: Make your goal something you want and within your control; not dependent on someone else’s actions.
Action-oriented: Make your goal about things you can do; your behaviour. Behaviours or actions are much easier to change than our feelings or things outside of our control.
Realistic: This one is very important, especially this year. This is often where New Year’s resolutions fail. People can have grand ideas about how they want to change but forget that change is difficult and requires lots of energy. It is better to make small, realistic steps toward a goal than to have huge expectations and then fail and give up.
Time-defined: Each of our steps in our goal should include a time frame for completion. This will encourage us to not procrastinate. One way to do this is to put each step of our goal into a calendar but with flexible deadlines. Life happens and we need to be flexible with ourselves.
4. Practice Self-Acceptance and Self-Compassion
Goals and change rooted in self-caring and self-compassion are mentally healthier than those stemming from self-criticism. And for many of us, this leads to an increase our likelihood to achieve our goals. It is an interesting paradox that productive change actually comes out of a place of self-acceptance and self-compassion. Self-compassion does not mean laziness or self-indulgence. It means doing what is truly best for ourselves and our health in a caring way. Self-acceptance says, "I know myself and accept myself as I am right now. My life has led me to this point and this is okay. And now I want to keep moving forward and continue growing." It is honest, accepting of the current reality and non-judgmental. It is out of this space that we can make positive change. Self-compassion wants what is truly best and healthy for us. This may mean change but it is based on caring rather than judgment. This is a much healthier state of mind from which to make change.
For those who struggle with self-compassion, this could become a goal to work on. There are many good books, practices and classes out there to increase our self-compassion. Some good authors and researchers in this area are Drs. Kristin Neff and Christopher Germer.
And on the note of self-compassion, I will say it again; for some of us, the most compassionate and healthy response will be to have no New Year’s Resolutions this year. This is more than okay. May you have the resources and resiliency to face the challenges ahead, to live a life consistent with your values, and find times of joy and connection in these uncertain times.