Making a good start to the year
It is traditional to start a new year making resolutions. However, we usually tend to give up very soon. It can be frustrating when we fail to follow through with our intentions. However, we can begin by focusing on a few things that we are interested in that we value and think will make a difference and benefit us and others.
Most people are weary after two years of the pandemic. Some have had a tough time as they lost relatives or were in a precarious financial situation. When facing challenging situations, it is helpful to practice gratitude, notice what is most valuable, and appreciate what we have. Depending on each person’s circumstances, we can be grateful for our health, our relationships, or that we have activities that give us purpose and meaning.
As we begin the first few days of the year, it is good to reflect on what matters to us and where we want to be. We may be thinking about what we want to have accomplished by the end of the year. Perhaps, continue something we left unfinished last year, or we may want to develop a new skill.
To focus our mind, we can ask ourselves, “ What would be the best way to spend my time? Will engaging in a particular activity get me closer to my goals? To have a clearer idea of what we want, we can imagine our best possible self and ask, “Where do we see ourselves in the near or long-term future?”
At times, we may lose track of what we want to achieve and get distracted by thoughts that interfere with our intention to accomplish something. It is normal to experience self-doubt when facing uncertainty, so managing our expectations and being more realistic as we set our goals will help create a path forward. It is best not to be too ambitious, start with smaller goals, and build on them. We are more likely to persevere with our efforts when we are clear about what we need to do to achieve them.
A new beginning is an opportunity to reflect on our values and beliefs. For example, we may know that we want to help others or make progress in our work or studies. Instead of making traditional New Year’s resolutions that focus on what we want to avoid, like losing weight or stopping smoking, we can create positive goals. For example, maintaining good health, learning a skill or contributing to society.
When we set up our goals as something that we want rather than something we want to stop doing, focusing on the benefits will make it easier to follow through with them.
Sometimes, we may regret not completing a goal and wish we had done something different. Instead of feeling distressed by this, we can refocus our attention on what we can do differently next time. We can nurture a positive mindset by being curious and looking for alternatives to get ideas to help us get closer to our goal. We can make positive changes, such as eating more healthy food, doing some exercise, starting a new hobby, deciding to be more present or less self-critical, or dedicating time to nurturing our relationships.
As we think about what we want to achieve, it is helpful to consider potential obstacles to prepare for them. It will increase the likelihood of maintaining our motivation and persevering with our efforts (Oettingen, 2014).
Here are a few strategies to make progress and maintain motivation:
1. Prioritise what is meaningful: Many have expressed feeling overwhelmed with too much to do and feeling tired or burnt out during the pandemic. Sometimes, believing that if we had enough time, we could get things done can exacerbate the pressure.
Acknowledging that we have limited time helps us focus on what matters to prioritise where we spend our time and energy. (Burkeman, 2021). We may have to make hard choices, but concentrating on what matters will guide our decisions.
Breaking tasks down into smaller steps will help reduce the pressure and feel more productive. It will also improve our concentration and motivation as we see improvement.
When we focus on what matters, it can sustain us when going through a challenging time, dealing with uncertainty, or feel we have far too much to do. Research shows that when we focus on what is meaningful, it supports our health and wellbeing (Russo-Netser, 2019).
When in a negative mindset, we focus on what is wrong and ignore the good work and the effort we have put into it. We also discount positive feedback. Instead, focusing on our work and giving ourselves credit for persevering with a task can help us get unstuck. In addition, rather than dwelling on mistakes, we can learn from them to make adjustments that will improve our work.
When we pursue meaningful goals, we are more willing to dedicate our time and effort to achieve them. Sometimes, we may have distracting thoughts that reduce our motivation. For example, when we think the task is too difficult, we may have thoughts such as “I’m not good at this” or “I will fail and then feel terrible”. People often think they are the only ones having these thoughts. However, it is part of our human condition to experience self-doubt and ambivalence in times of uncertainty.
We can identify the inner voice that focuses on the obstacles, causing us to falter in our resolve. When this occurs, it helps to take a moment to notice our thoughts and feelings. As we acknowledge these, their intensity will reduce, allowing us to explore alternative perspectives to identify how to manage the obstacles.
Here are a few strategies to make progress and maintain wellbeing:
2. Practise gratitude: it is a state of mind and body. When we focus on what we value, it shifts our mindset to what gives us meaning, having a beneficial effect on our mood and health. It can help us be more willing to make the hard choices we need to make to pursue our goals. Taking a few minutes each day to think about what we are grateful for in our lives can boost our mood.
Research shows that gratitude benefits our health, reducing cortisol levels (stress hormone), reducing stress and resting energy (Newman, et al., 2021). It can also help us feel more connected when expressing appreciation towards others.
As we shift our focus from what went wrong or what we were worrying about to something we value, it can help put things into perspective. Seeing the bigger picture can give us ideas to problem-solve the challenges we face (Russo-Netzer, 2019)..
3.Practise listening: our relationships benefit when we listen with an open mind and with the intention of understanding. Adopting a neutral stance and being non-judgemental, we can focus on what the other is saying. As a result, we can reduce misunderstandings, prevent conflict, and feel more engaged.
When we listen intending to understand, it contributes to feeling a sense of connection, particularly needed during the pandemic. Many have expressed how challenging it has been to maintain relationships while keeping physical distance. Most of us used online platforms when we could not meet face-to-face. As restrictions ease, reaching out and connecting with others is more important than ever. It will boost our mood and wellbeing and that of others.
4. Get out of our comfort zone: we learn when we stretch beyond our comfort zone. Starting a new year is a good time to consider engaging in activities where we can develop our knowledge and learn new skills that support our goals.
For example, we can start exercising for 30 minutes to support our health, or, if we want to develop our knowledge in a particular subject, we can read a few pages a day, learn a language, or practise learning a musical instrument. Learning new things has a positive effect on our motivation and wellbeing (Dweck, 2017).
Burkeman, O. (2021) Four thousand weeks. Time and how to use it. London: The Bodley Head.
Dweck, C. (2017) Mindset. Changing the way you think to fulfil your potential. Updated edition. New York: Ballantine Books.
Miller, M. C., & Miller, M. C. (2019). The mental health benefits of gratitude. In Harvard Health
Publications (Ed.), Harvard Medical School commentaries on health. Harvard Health
Newman, D, Gordon, A. & Mendes, W. (2021). Comparing Daily Physiological and Psychological
Benefits of Gratitude and Optimism Using a Digital Platform. Emotion, 21, 1357-1365.
Oettingen, G. (2014) Rethinking positive thinking. Inside the new science of motivation. New York: Current.
Russo-Netzer, P. (2019). Prioritizing meaning as a pathway to meaning in life and well-being. Journal of Happiness Studies, 20(6), 1863-