Shifting gears …. and years.

It happens every 12 months, right after what’s often the most indulgent time of the year. There’s something about flipping the page on the calendar from December to January: for many of us, the beginning of a new year represents a clean slate. And, when faced with a clean slate – and perhaps a few extra pounds and a lighter wallet – many of us are drawn, year after year, to pause and reflect.

Whether you see the end of December as a time to make resolutions or not, the early months of a new year have always been marked as a time for self-reflection, in the hopes of kindling “better” and “healthier”. Moving away from the darkest time of the year often brings hope and optimism, as the new beginnings of spring are just ahead. To make a fresh start, we like to make promises to ourselves and sometimes others, in the hopes that declaring our intentions will increase our likelihood of success.

So, if you find yourself in the mood to take that time to pause and reflect after the holidays, here are a few tips on making smart New Year’s resolutions.

1. Eat the elephant . . . one bite at a time.

About 95% of New Year’s resolutions fail, due to lack of follow through. Why? Partly because we tend to make lofty goals like lose weight! quit binge watching TV! stop using single-use plastics! While your goal might be a great one, it takes many steps to realize big changes. It’s easy to forget the value of those steps, which help to prepare your mind and body and perhaps even your community, for those changes.

Instead of declaring an “all or nothing” goal that demands wholescale change, try breaking the goal down into smaller parts. Resolve to start some kind of regular exercise (a few days a week for 30 minutes rather than every day for an hour) or eliminate after-dinner snacking, rather than attempting to revamp your entire household’s dietary experience. Set a daily time limit on your TV time and use an alarm. Watch one news cast, rather than having cable news running in the background. Throw reusable bags in your trunk. Making small changes, one by one, is the best way to make sustainable changes.

2. Make a plan.

Once you decide on a goal, do some research to figure out the best way to proceed or learn how others have approached the same goal. From there, you can design your own step-by-step plan. Make sure you schedule time to complete those steps — and be sure to give yourself a realistic timeline for completion. It’s also very helpful to share your goal with someone you care about, who will support you in achieving it, and maybe even join you along the way.

3. Stay true to yourself.

It’s really important to align your goals with your values and your priorities. To do this successfully, start with an honest discussion with yourself. Why do you want to accomplish this goal? Are you doing this for you or for someone else? Sometimes we pursue big life changes because we think we “should” – maybe due to peer pressure, societal pressure, or the influence of friends or family who think you need to be MORE or LESS like this or that. But what do you want? Once you have a clear sense of your values, you can work backward to identify the changes that need to be made in order to align your life with those values. Bottom line: the truer you stay to yourself, the more likely you will be to follow through.

If you’re a person who makes a yearly New Year’s resolution, but you’ve never been able to make those goals materialize, building a plan that includes smaller steps and ensuring the goal aligns with what’s really important to you will increase your success. Remember, if you take a run at a goal and lose some momentum, you can always take another shot at achieving your goal. Take what you’ve learned, consider what blocked your success, be kind to yourself (change is often hard) and go for it! Happy New Year!

This blog post is part of a series looking at the state of our mental healthcare system and ways we can create sustainable change to improve quality and outcomes for anyone impacted by mental illness. 

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