As the new year approaches, many set out to make New Year’s resolutions, but can hard-and-fast attempts to change behavior do more harm than good?
While the new year can be an opportunity to assess areas you want to improve, experts suggest approaching goals in a less-pressured way, especially as uncertain times continue make things tough on mental health.
Amy Morin, psychotherapist and editor-in-chief at VeryWell Mind, say many of her therapy clients feel the pressure to come up with a big change for the following year.
“Often they’re not mentally ready to make the change, but the calendar is about to flip over to the new year, so they feel like they have to do something.”
Jenny Koning, a therapist with virtual primary care and mental health platform PlushCare, explains if we don’t end up meeting or keeping up with that resolution we placed at the start of the year, more pressure can set in.
“This pressure to make a change, based on a cultural timeline like that of New Year’s Day, can set most of us up for failure because we only see it in black or white,” she explains. “This heightening pressure can lead to increased anxiety or depression. It’s important if you are feeling symptoms of anxiety or depression to be kind to yourself and, in some cases, to consider speaking to a mental health expert.”
Not only can resolutions contribute to this pressure, but they can also make people feel like failures by trying to reach unattainable, goals.
“Often people have these vague resolutions like ‘I’m going to be happier’ or ‘I want to be healthier,’ but they’re almost impossible to put into practice, because what does that really mean?” Morin says, adding this is what leads most resolutions to fail by January 18. “People feel like they’re failures or think that they’re incapable or incompetent and give up and get frustrated until the following year when the cycle continues and they try to make another resolution.”
Instead, Koning suggests shifting your mindset from resolutions to setting intentions, which “offers us a more enjoyable approach to creating lasting change regardless of the time of year.”
“Resolutions can conjure feelings of good or bad and success or failure. Whereas, intentions offer us a place of compassion, growth and grace,” she says.
Tips for successful intention-setting
Examine your core values: You are more likely to stick to change if it supports your underlying values, Koning says, so consider asking yourself, ‘What is important to you?”
“Take the time to understand those values and how they are connected to the intention,” explains Koning. “Change often happens when we recognize that who we currently are, isn’t aligning with who we want to be.”
Make it measurable: “Instead of saying, ‘I want to be happier,’ or ‘I want to be healthier,’ maybe your strategy is, ‘I’m going to do one fun thing every week,’ or ‘I’m going to go to the gym four days a week for 25 minutes at a time,’ ” suggests Morin.
Break it down: You don’t have to shoot for the whole year, either. Morin encourages 30-day challenges over annual goals. “When we start to set short term objectives that feel like they’re much more doable and we start to see progress, that progress keeps us motivated so we’re more likely to stick to them.”
Make it actionable: Figure out one thing you can do today to become a step closer to your goal. “When you identify it right down to what actionable step you can take today, it just becomes much more manageable,” Morin says.
Ease into new habits: Instead of creating a bunch of new habits, which can be daunting and hard to maintain, Koning suggests “habit stacking” with her clients, in which you “anchor” a new habit to an old habit.
“For example, if you want to set aside time for feeling grateful, try adding a minute of gratitude to tying your shoes every morning,” she explains. “Tying your shoes (is an activity) that you complete naturally every single day… by adding a minute of gratitude to these existing habits, you will only enhance the ability to maintain the desired change.”
Track it: Morin says people are more likely to stick to their goals when they keep track of them. “The act of writing it down and seeing it on paper raises our awareness and tends to motivate us,” she says.
Be kind to yourself: Remember, the idea of intention setting allows you to be less hard on yourself if you do get off track.
“This is a softer, gentler approach at change that encourages us to look closer at our core values,” Koning says. “When we can align our core values with our intentions there is less significance placed on the outcome and more room to enjoy the process of striving toward our goals.”