“There are times where we’re in flux, and it won’t be so easy to come up with solutions that will stick, and I think this is one of those times,” said Wendy Wood, a social psychologist and author of “Good Habits, Bad Habits.”
Instead, Wood and other experts are encouraging people to modify their approaches to goal-setting this year and prioritize self-compassion.
About 40 percent of adults in the United States, or 140 million people, make New Year’s resolutions each year, said University of Scranton psychology professor John Norcross, citing data from multiple studies he has co-authored. While resolutions are often phrased positively, Norcross said, they nevertheless create expectations for behavior, which can become a burden.
“Particularly in the United States, resolutions are invariably cast as an individually oriented deprivation task, and this may be exactly the worst time to put that onto yourself,” said Norcross, who has studied resolutions for decades and is the author of “Changeology: 5 Steps to Realizing Your Goals and Resolutions.”
Last year — in which we experienced a deadly global pandemic on top of a painful reckoning over racial injustice, a divisive presidential election and devastating natural disasters — exacted a heavy toll on nearly every aspect of life. And the stressors contributing to rising rates of anxiety and depression, among other mental health issues, didn’t magically disappear when the clock struck midnight on Dec. 31.
Heightened stress levels don’t bode well for making or keeping resolutions, Norcross said. “Increased stress demonstrably decreases both the probability of someone starting to change their behavior as well as the success in any behavior change.”
The uncertainty that has characterized life since the beginning of the pandemic presents another challenge, Wood said, noting that simple goals such as exercising more often can be complicated by coronavirus-related restrictions. “The structural lack of consistency from day to day, week to week, in our experience makes it very difficult to plan to achieve goals, follow through,” she said.
Experts recommend making or adjusting resolutions to ensure they are smaller and more short term than usual. “This might not be the year to decide that you want to become a bodybuilder or really go for your movie career in L.A.,” said Christopher Taylor, founder of the Taylor Counseling Group in Texas. “This might be the year for stability and saying, ‘What’s the one thing I can do right now?’ ”
By scaling down your goals, you can lessen the pressure, which might increase your chances of success, said Natalie Dattilo, a clinical health psychologist with Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
Try setting micro-goals, or tasks that you know you could probably achieve, Dattilo said. Although the accomplishment may be “low-hanging fruit,” you can still experience the benefit of dopamine, the reward neurochemical, she noted.
“Don’t underestimate the value of these small wins because they add up over time” and can help keep you motivated, she said. “If you’re waiting until the end to achieve that ultimate goal, it’s really unlikely that you’re going to get there unless you have set yourself up for success along the way.”
It also may be beneficial to set resolutions that could have a positive impact on people other than yourself, or goals that reduce burdens, such as resolving to limit time spent watching the news, Norcross said. Those types of resolutions are “far less common in the United States,” he added.
What if you just want to survive 2021? “It’s a reasonable goal,” Dattilo said. “We don’t want to put a lot of added pressure on ourselves to ultimately just end up feeling disappointed again because we didn’t meet a particular goal,” she added. “Let yourself off the hook, give yourself permission to just experience without the added pressure to change or perform.”
Taylor agrees. “It’s okay to say, ‘I just kind of want to get through the day.’ Maybe this year the goal is, ‘Let me find a little bit of stability, a little bit of calm, a little bit of peace, and let’s go from there. Let’s get ready for 2022.’ ”
Andrea Brown, executive director of the Black Mental Health Alliance, said the organization decided to forgo posting about resolutions for 2021 and is instead encouraging people, particularly those in Black and other marginalized communities, to focus on self-care. People of color have not only been disproportionately impacted by the events of 2020, they are also historically unaccustomed to taking the time to care for themselves, Brown said.
“The real road to recovery for the Black community and other marginalized communities is really embracing the practice of radical self-care,” said Brown. She likens this form of self-care to the instruction parents get on airplanes to put on their own oxygen masks before helping their children.
Brown notes that the process is individual and goes deeper than getting your hair done or treating yourself to a manicure. “It is, ‘I am, above all else, taking care of myself spiritually, psychologically, mentally, physically.’ ” If a person starts there, “then maybe next year you’ll really be ready for resolutions,” she said.
However you choose to set goals this year, experts emphasized the importance of being kinder and more forgiving to yourself if you don’t meet them. “It’s a tough time out there,” Norcross said. “Just cut yourself some slack.”
There is also no reason to think you needed to come up with resolutions at the beginning of the year, experts said. “It doesn’t really feel like 2020 has ended, so it’s kind of hard to see where that demarcation point is,” Dattilo said. “Maybe we need to pick a different month or a different event that sort of symbolizes the transition that we often associate with New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day.”
Brown urged people to “dare to do something different” this year. “The last 11 months, everything has changed.”