There are lots of reasons to love the start of a brand new year — but this isn’t your regular January. As much as we’re looking forward to putting the stress, disruption and upheaval of 2020 and COVID-19 behind us, for now, we’re still very much living in a pandemic world.
There’s a growing light at the end of the tunnel: Vaccines are on their way, and hopefully our lives will return to something that feels more like what we’re used to soon. Goal setting and a forward-looking plan for everything we want to accomplish in 2021 can feel just as important as any other time if you feel up to it. If you don’t, then some basic self-care goals can help you feel as good as you can while we keep navigating our way through the pandemic.
Either way, we know that the first months of the year will have the same physical distancing, isolation and multiple hurdles that we jumped over (and under… and around!) during 2020.
So how do you balance feeling optimistic about setting New Year’s goals while being realistic about how to work at achieving them during the pandemic?
This guide focuses on how to bring an approach of mindfulness and self-love to setting realistic, meaningful New Year’s goals during COVID-19.
If you don’t care about “goals” right now, that’s ok
Maybe you’re not feeling a desire to set any new goals at all. We just went through a whole lot in 2020, and the strain and trauma of that don’t magically go away just because a new year has started.
You might have lost a person you loved, or someone in your family might be one of the millions of folks in North America who lost their jobs and are still struggling. The annual New Year’s shift to making elaborate plans for how we’ll thrive and succeed in the next year might feel trivial, even impossible or stupid.
That is very fair and completely valid. Know that if you feel that way that you’re not wrong, and you’re not alone.
If you know that you’ve done all you can just by getting by, and right now, you’re focused on coping day to day, then that is just as important and special as planning for things you want to change in the future. You don’t deserve any less credit, and you shouldn’t feel pressure to start new habits or change anything you’re doing because New Year’s Day has rolled around.
Even the smallest actions can positively boost our mental health and, over time, add up to big changes. If you feel up to it, here are some realistic but meaningful daily habits that can help you feel better while you find your way.
Plan with realism and self-compassion during the pandemic
It’s natural to want to get on with our lives. If you’re the type of person who regularly uses New Year’s as a catalyst to tackle big, ambitious goals, then that’s awesome. Don’t abandon that habit, but give yourself the space of knowing that setting goals this year simply just isn’t the same.
Two new approaches are fundamental at the beginning of 2021: realism and self-compassion. Follow these three steps to include a bit of both to help make sure your goals this year are more sustainable and long-term.
1. Make each goal small. Very, very small.
You might be familiar with the idea of breaking down large, complex goals into small, continual actions. It’s a smart and scientifically-proven approach that works. During the pandemic, make each step even smaller than you might typically.
Say you want to build a meditation habit. Planning to “start meditating” is too broad and vague. Planning to “meditate every day for 30 minutes” is a great long-term goal but too ambitious as you just start out.
Little actions add up over time. Things that you’ll realistically get done have the added benefit of giving you a sense of accomplishment. As you check them off, they reinforce the overall habit and give you an extra motivational boost.
Start by saying, “I will meditate three times a week for five minutes using this meditation from Lifemarket.” Over time, you can build up to larger goals, like meditation more frequently and for longer, after you’ve eased yourself into the habit.
2. Piggyback each new habit to an existing one.
The good thing about habits is that they become automatic. You don’t have to try very hard to think about getting them done because your brain automatically anticipates doing something regularly. Cognitively, it lets you focus more on the errands you have to run in the morning and not on brushing your teeth because you always brush right after you wake up.
Planning your specific new meditation habit is great, but it’s even better if you say, “I will meditate three times a week for five minutes using this meditation right after I brush my teeth.” Cognitively, it gives your brain a “space” to add the new habit — meditating — into an existing routine. Then it will be easier for you to remember and more likely to get done.
3. Give your new habits a passionate “why”
Your brain doesn’t want to change. Adapting our minds and bodies puts our physical selves under tremendous stress, and ultimately our brain wants to avoid that. That’s part of why the concept of “habits” exists in the first place and why changing habits can be so hard. Our brain wants everything to stay the same, whether it’s making us happy and healthy or not.
One way to encourage ourselves to adopt a new habit is with motivation, and one of the best motivational triggers is our emotions. When we are emotional about a new habit, we’re more likely to succeed at making it stick.
Chances are, you’re probably a bit (or a lot) emotionally exhausted right now. It might not be immediately apparent why you care about a new habit you want to put in place — because of that, defining the emotional “why” for a change is crucial.
Try to be as specific as possible. Saying you want to meditate to be “happier” is good. Saying, “I will meditate three times a week for five minutes using this meditation right after I brush my teeth because I want to ease my anxiety and be more present for my family” is incredible.
Starting sometime is better than never starting at all
Optimism and a real desire for change are both critical ingredients to beginning any new healthier habit. But putting the pressure on yourself to wake up on a particular day in January and just be a new person is not only unrealistic, it’s also part of why psychology experts estimate up to 90% of all typical New Year’s resolutions fail.
January 1st is just another day, and January is just another month. Yet, many of us act like we’ve missed a magical change window if we don’t restart our habits at the beginning of the year. Then we hold off and wait for another perfect day (or month, or year) before we should begin working on the goals that matter most to us.
There’s no perfect time to start anything. Many people are thinking about improving their lives during the New Year, and that’s a good thing. (You’re reading this, so you’re probably one of them.) But know that you can begin anytime you want: The key is how you start and not when you start.
The pressure to be perfect not only doesn’t help, it makes it harder to achieve your goals.
Don’t force yourself to be perfect. Especially in the beginning days and weeks of any new habit, expecting yourself to completely change and stick to your new habits 100% of the time is a barrier you’re putting in your own way.
At some point, you won’t hit your daily goal. A slip-up is inevitable. It’s normal and happens to everyone.
Instead of worrying that you will make a mistake, flip your expectation around: anticipate the moments you won’t be perfect. Don’t just expect to fail, embrace it. Failure means that you’re trying, and that’s a good thing.
Re-frame “failure” as just another step on the path to getting something done. When it happens (and it will):
- Avoid all or nothing thinking. A single failure — even multiple failures — doesn’t mean that you’ve ruined your goal or that you should give up.
- Give yourself compassion and understanding. Remember that you’re focused on trying something new, and that isn’t easy.
- If you can, simply let the failure go and move on. Tomorrow is a new day.
If you find yourself unable to let it go or you’re stuck on feeling the need to be perfect:
- Find a moment to sit alone in a quiet room. (If your only option is the bathroom, that’s just as good as anywhere else.)
- Take five cyclical breaths: inhale for a count of four, hold for a count of four, and exhale for six.
- As you exhale each time, say in your mind, “I give myself kindness. I give myself compassion.”
Invest in tools to help you enjoy your new habits
You’re more likely to hit your goals with some preparation put in first. These shouldn’t be expensive, big-ticket items that will make you feel pressure to use and shame if you don’t. As you get started, think of smaller, more affordable things that will make tackling your new habits smoother and more comfortable, but that won’t break the bank.
As you gain confidence down the road, that’s the time to invest more in your growing habit. For now, focus on easing yourself into your new routines with tiny touches that will make it fun and enjoyable.
Our New Year Prep Guides are full of hand-picked items we love. They’ll help you get rolling on your healthier habits at any budget and no matter what time of year you get started. If you’ve got a League Spending Account, they might even already be covered. Check out your Digital Wallet to see what’s available for you.
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