How New Year’s Resolutions Can Boost (or Bust) Your Mental Health
New year, new you! Right? For many of us the start of a new year symbolizes a fresh start and is marked by setting goals for the days and months ahead. ln theory we’re free to make changes to our lifestyles and work to overcome bad habits at any point in time but for me, there’s just something about flipping open the first page in a new calendar that inspires me to tackle projects I’ve been meaning to get to. I go to sleep on December 31st confident that the next day will be the start of my most productive, fulfilling and happiest year yet. I await the New Year’s Resolution Fairy’s arrival, knowing she’ll sprinkle her magical pixie dust throughout my home office during my slumber and that I’ll awake with the precise combination of zest and perseverance I need to tick every one of my goals off my list before the year is through. What? It’s a nice thought!
Have you ever made a new year’s resolution that you haven’t ended up sticking to? Yep, me too. I’ll bet many of you have also done what I do when I fail to meet the goal I’ve set for myself: embark on a guilt trip of epic proportions, convincing yourself you lack the willpower that seems to come so easily to others. You might find yourself focusing on the disappointment of not having followed through with one particular goal even in spite of other victories. (This is called negativity bias, by the way, and it’s an interesting and almost universal experience in humans – like how you could get 99 warm, sincere compliments but only remember the neutral or not-so-nice thing one person had to say.) Setting goals is great and can be an important catalyst for change and a highly valuable practice, as much for the process as for the outcome. Let’s take a look at a few points that will help us to goals in a way that inspire and support a positive state of mind rather than evoking stress, exhaustion and frustration.
1. Celebrate your accomplishments
Before you delve too far into the future, take a moment to appreciate all that you’ve accomplished over the past year. Really think about the ways you expended your energy and all the things you’re proud of. You lived through a global pandemic, for one thing! Perhaps your work role was flipped on its head and you had to learn a new skillset. Maybe you learned how to homeschool your kids on the fly. As our mental health was so significantly challenged by all that COVID-19 threw our way many of us learned how important self care is and, out of necessity, learned how to prioritize our wellbeing and adopt mentally healthier routines. No feat is small enough to dismiss; think through this year’s accomplishments and celebrate them fully (even if it’s just by taking a mindful moment of appreciation) before moving on to goal-setting for the new year.
2. Formulate a plan
Don’t just set a goal – think about each of the steps you’ll need to take to get there. Consider whether your goals and timeframe are reasonable, and whether you’re truly willing and/or able to invest the time, energy and any other necessary resources needed to reach the finish line. Now, I’m certainly not trying to talk anyone out of being ambitious and setting lofty goals. These are points to take into account to protect your mental health (and actually achieve the goals you set). While formalizing our aspirations and setting a plan in place to attain them can be an exciting and satisfying practice it's important to ensure our expectations are realistic. Setting the bar too high can leave us feeling anxious and disappointed, taking a significant toll on mental wellbeing. Given the rollercoaster we've experienced over the past year let's be gentle and patient with ourselves and set goals in the “sweet spot”, keeping us motivated throughout the year instead of panicked and overwhelmed. Don’t forget to continue celebrating small victories along the way – research shows giving yourself a mental pat on the back, or better yet sharing the pride in your accomplishment with a loved one, can give you a psychological boost and help you to stay on track.
3. Expect (and embrace) the unexpected
If 2020 taught us anything surely it’s that there are simple things we cannot plan for. Personally, as someone who feels comfort in being organized and always having a plan in place (shout out to my Type A personality friends!) I find it extremely stressful when things don’t go according to plan. I’ve always been awe-struck at folks who have a natural “take it as it comes” attitude as the ability to cope with change is such an important factor in mental resilience. I’ve had ample opportunity over the past year to hone my pivoting skills and, although it’s still not my preference, I have to admit that it’s much like developing any other skill in that it gets easier with time and practice. When setting your goals anticipate that unexpected challenges and setbacks may pop up along your journey. Regroup, refocus and channel your energy toward getting back on course rather than fixating on frustrations.
On a final note, really focusing in on your own mental health this year can (and should!) be a goal in itself this year. Make it a priority to tune in to your stress level and mood on a regular basis and explore different forms of self care to learn what you find effective when your mental health isn’t in tip-top shape. If you’ve been waiting for the perfect time to start integrating self care into your regular routine, there’s no time like the present.
Thanks for reading! Wishing each of you a mentally healthy start to 2021.
Elizabeth Eldridge is a Psychological Health & Safety Consultant based in southern New Brunswick, Canada. In addition to frequent keynote speaking and corporate training on mental health she is the owner/operator of Arpeggio Health Services, Atlantic Canada’s largest provider of public mental health trainings. Learn more at elizabetheldridge.com, summitcorporatewellness.com and arpeggiohealthservices.com.