I was ready to be done with 2020 and start a new-year-new-me back in March.
So, I started thinking about 2021 New Year’s resolutions as early as Halloween. What was on the list? It would be the year I drop 10 — OK, all — of the COVID-19 pounds, finish my novel, and, oh yes, discover the true meaning of life. (As though I didn’t have enough time to mull it over during months of quarantine.)
But mental health experts caution that, even if we’re eager to fill our clean slate, we should slow our roll. If there was any year to abandon our quest of New Year’s resolution perfection, it’s this one.
Why? Because given the collective trauma and uncertainty we all experienced through 2020, the last thing we should do is kick off the year with anxiety. “It’s understandable to have high expectations for 2021,” said Heather Hersh, a clinical psychologist and founder of the Philly-based consulting firm, Thrive Well-Being. “But when the clock strikes 12 on Thursday night, our problems won’t magically disappear.”
Ain’t that the truth? Many of us are still months away from getting the coronavirus vaccine, and even after that, social distancing and mask wearing will very much still be a part of our reality. The fate of the economy is anyone’s guess. We’re still going through this country’s racial reckoning. For the first time, we don’t have a sense of where we, as a country, will be in six months. And that makes planning for the future pretty much impossible.
How resolutions set you up to fail
Even when life is peachy, New Year’s resolutions set us up to fail because the focus is more on the endgame than the journey, said Geri-Lynn Utter, a Montgomery County-based clinical psychologist. That’s because we often bite off more than we can chew and fail to realize that anything worth having means taking tiny steps that require us to keep promises to ourselves.
“Resolutions can also be too vague and overreaching,” Utter said. “And we end up focusing more on the outcomes than the behaviors, when it’s the behaviors that get us there.”
And, just because the calendar resets doesn’t mean that we are in the right space to make the changes. Conversely, there are times when we are ready to do the damn thing but pause because it’s not the beginning of the week, month, or year. What’s a creature of habit to do? But the truth is we don’t need the perfect water bottle we ordered on Amazon to start drinking water every day — we can start with a glass right now.
Why resolutions are worse this year
And 2020 has made everything that’s wrong with resolutions worse. Everything about this year threw us off our routines, big time. Some of this was positive: We realized that we were going through life on autopilot and created new habits that were more conducive to our lives. Eating out five days a week became eating in all seven. But some of us also flailed. We weren’t able to go the gym, shop for fresh produce every day, or keep up with scheduled haircuts and massages. We had to stop seeing friends and family. Some of us lost jobs. But it’s the routines that help us stick to our resolutions, Hersh said.
“Because we were unable to rely on the things we normally did, we used a lot of energy worrying about failing,” Hersh said. “Now we run the risk of setting resolutions that are based on life returning back to normal. But we don’t have any idea what our normal will look like a year from now, six months from now, even three months from now.”
What does self-improvement look like in 2021?
New Year’s resolutions may be out. But self-improvement is an every-day thing, as in moment to moment, not year to year, said Kerri Hanlon, owner of the Conshohocken-based online yoga studio, Yoga Home.
“We’ve had time to pause, so we should take the time to dream and think about the future,” Hanlon said. “And those are dreams that will keep us motivated. But our future is based on what we do in the present moment and despite the hardships we have, make the best of the present moment we are in.”
Here are some tips to keep in mind for self-improvement, 2021-style, that you can start now:
What is it that you want to work on? This is usually the easiest part, Hersh said. There has been something that has been gnawing at you for a while and you want to do better. Maybe it’s to lose 25 pounds, or look for a new job, or start a meditation practice. But you’ve identified it.
Why is this important for you? This is key. Take losing weight Hersh said. This is an automatic resolution for a lot of people, often so we are swimsuit-ready by summer (that’s true for me). But reality check: Our lives may not be back to normal this summer. So, who is really going to see us in our bathing suit? “So, then it becomes, why do I really want to lose this weight? And if it’s to be healthier, that’s a totally different motivation.”
Set realistic and pragmatic goals. If healthy living is more important to you than washboard abs, then you can remove some of the pressure and work slow changes into your daily lifestyle. Maybe you can start drinking a daily smoothie, chock-full of frozen fruits, greens, and almond milk. Or grab an apple instead of that daily bag of potato chips.
Focus on the journey, not the outcome. Some days, you are going to drink the smoothie. Other days, you are going to eat the chips. Change is about racking up the small wins, Utter said. So if you don’t follow through on one day, don’t throw your hands up in failure. “It’s OK to feel the feelings,” she said.
Be kind to yourself. This year made many of us feel like failures, through no fault of our own. So it’s important, Utter said, that we practice kindness and self-compassion in everything we do this year. “The most important question we can ask is if what we are doing is nurturing our mental health, or is it setting us back?” Utter said. “If it’s making you unhappy in any way, it’s time to step back and rethink the why.”