Stepping away from rigid resolutions and creating intentional habits instead
By Elizabeth Mu, licensed marriage and family therapist at CHOC
Can you believe we’re starting a new year?
As we finish navigating the winter holidays and close out on another year, we turn our sights to the year ahead. Some people may have grand plans for resolutions that will revolutionize and change their lives. Many, if not all of us, have made New Year’s resolutions before like, “I’m hitting the gym this year!” or “My family will start eating healthier!” or “We are going to reduce screen time!”
But do New Year’s resolutions actually work? And are they helpful?
Making intentions rather than resolutions
Rather than making the traditional New Year’s resolutions, I have come to love the idea of setting intentions. Setting intentions can give you the opportunity to reflect on what’s important to you and promote what values you want to prioritize in life.
Setting intentions and hopes for the new year is something we see across many cultures. Chinese New Year traditions include eating and gifting oranges or other citrus fruits to represent happiness and prosperity for the coming year.
In Spain, you might run out the door at midnight with a suitcase to encourage the idea of travel. Persian New Year includes lots of symbolic items in the Haft Sin table such as Sib (apple) for health or sprouts for rebirth and growth. There is something very powerful about the rituals we create and practice for ourselves to welcome in the new year and remind us of what values we want to emphasize.
Creating approach-oriented goals
Research shows that approach-oriented goals like “I want to enjoy more time with friends,” rather than avoidance-oriented goals like “I want to stay away from sweets,” are more successful.
Along these lines, one of my favorite personal traditions is to fill New Year’s Day with all the things I hope the coming year will be filled with. I usually go on a hike because I value nature, roller skating to honor my love of fun, eat something delicious to treat myself and set aside time to spend with friends or family.
Creating healthy intentions for the new year
For the same reason that people create vision boards, we can create a vision for the upcoming year for ourselves and our families. By imagining or envisioning the year you want, you’re more likely to make it happen, take steps to honor the values you have set for your family and recognize when those intentions happen.
What other rituals can be done to explore and honor the values you want to see in the coming year for you and your kids?
- Journal or talk about the past year.
- Talk about what were the high and low moments of the year. Ask yourselves, what contributed to the good times in the year and what do you hope to see more of next year?
- Talk about what you hope for the upcoming year.
- Have your family members write letters to themselves to read at the end of the year.
- Lay out all the things you hope will happen in your life in the next 365 days. Where you want to go, what you want to accomplish, how you want to feel and who you want to spend it with. This can be a fun activity to do with your kids too!
- Identify three to five words that embody the type of year you’d like your family to have.
- Maybe this year, your family would like to prioritize sports, travel or trying new exercise activities or healthy recipes.
- As a family, you may want to keep some values at the forefront of your year like rest, self-care, mental wellness or fun. You could even look up a list of common values online to help.
- Write these values down and hang them on your refrigerator or somewhere the whole family can be reminded of them.
How to set realistic goals for the new year
Now that you’ve set your intentions and identified your values for yourself and your family, how do you turn these hopes into reality?
You set goals!
In order to achieve any sort of goal, you need to make it concrete. Saying you want to spend more time outside is a great intention, but what does “more time outside” really mean? How do you measure it? How will you know you’ve made progress on your goal?
The acronym SMART represents a goal that is specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound (smart, right?). Let’s use the example of spending more time outside:
- Specific: How can you clearly state your goal? (To spend time outside by going hiking).
- Measurable: How will you track your progress? Can you add a number to your goal? (Hike one to two hours once per month).
- Achievable: Are you setting realistic expectations to be set up for success? (A one-to-two hour hike per month seems reasonable).
- Relevant: Does this goal matter to you? Does it match your values and the year YOU want. (I personally LOVE the outdoors so yes it matches. But if I hated nature and didn’t have any desire to be outside, it wouldn’t be relevant to try hiking all the time).
- Time-bound: What is your deadline to start? Do you have a due date? (Starting in January, I will hike on the 3rd weekend of each month).
Already, by using the SMART goal writing approach, you can see that this vague goal of “spending time outside” becomes a more realistic goal because it is specific, it gives a set date to begin, and makes sure that it matches what you’re capable of and what you value.
Plan for the unexpected
One important concept to keep in mind as you embark on your New Year’s intentions and goals is the idea of flexibility and self-forgiveness.
We can set out with the best of intentions to make our goals a reality and, unfortunately, life happens! We may try to go on that monthly hike and, guess what, we end up spraining our ankle or lose our mode of transportation and now we can’t hike. That’s OK!
We want to allow for balance between our aspirations and what life throws at us. What we don’t want to do is punish ourselves (or our kids) if we don’t meet the expectations exactly as we planned. That’s just going to leave us discouraged and less likely to try again.
So, if you can hold space for setting goals and being open to adjusting as needed (or even letting go of a goal that’s no longer serving you), you’ll be more likely to create the year you’re envisioning for your family.
Don’t forget to have fun with your goals
OK, now that you’ve set your intentions, you’ve created your goals and you’re taking the first steps…now what?
In the theme of New Year’s Eve, celebrate!
Be sure to celebrate with your family and reward yourselves each time you make progress on your goal or realize you’re living within your intentions.
Even if you just do a little dance, say an encouragement out loud or give yourself a fun treat, try to reinforce and reward yourself for each step you take towards creating the year you want.
It can take effort to work towards an intentional year, so don’t forget to acknowledge your progress along the way. Consider making a list of things, people, emotions or outcomes that motivate you to take action on your steps and you can use them to reward yourself as you go.
Now that you’ve got ideas for setting intentions, creating goals and rewarding follow-through, I think your family is ready to tackle this upcoming year. May this new year be your best yet!
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The mental health team at CHOC curated the following resources on mental health topics common to kids and teens, such as depression, anxiety, suicide prevention and more.