New Year’s resolutions are meant to be about long-term strategic goal-setting. Laying down the yearly foundation for the sort of person you want to be. But after two years of pandemic uncertainty, with lockdowns and chronic stress, and a future that seems to shift by the week, setting distant personal goals doesn’t make too much sense anymore. Nobody knows what February is going to look like – let alone November 2022. And is constant self-improvement really healthy in a world where simply surviving each day feels like a massive achievement?
Most experts agree that a return to the “normal” world – the pre-pandemic world we used to know – is pretty unlikely. COVID-19 is here to stay. So it makes sense for our annual resolutions to change, too.
Here’s how to set New Year’s resolutions in a post-COVID world.
1. Focus on short-term goals
Instead of structuring the entire year up-front, focus on regular habits and shorter periods of time. What’s something small that you can you achieve every day that will make your life measurably better? What’s a goal you can hold for two or three months, and then happily let go? “Living through several months of pandemic uncertainty has likely given many people a pretty good idea of which personal vulnerabilities this constrained life chafes against,” says psychologist Katherine Arbuthnott. “These personal points of pain can give people some idea of what resolutions they might make.” In other words, if you’re craving nature, set aside some nature time each week. If you’re feeling isolated, make a resolution to reach out to friends more often, or join a community group. Think short-term goals for long-term reward.
2. Practice gratitude
Do you know why they call it ‘practicing’ gratitude? It’s because gratitude is hard work, and it takes time to master. Gratitude doesn’t happen automatically: our brains tend to naturally find their own equilibrium, and part of that is taking the status quo for granted. If there has been one tiny silver lining in the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s the overwhelming evidence that, for most of us, we enjoy a very privileged position, and that our suffering is always relative to others. Science shows that those who regularly practice gratitude can significantly boost satisfaction, wellbeing and quality of life. And there are always things to be thankful for, if you look hard enough. Who would have thought, in 2019, that we could be grateful for walking in a park, or sitting down outside, or being able to leave our own homes?
3. Be prepared for tough times
No-one can predict what will happen in 2022 (these days, it would take a brave person to predict what’s going to happen next week) but we can be pretty sure it’ll involve challenges, surprises and general upheaval. Faced with uncertainty, the best resolution you can make is to simply take control. Take control of your finances by paying down your debt and starting a savings account (most banks now have round-up accounts, so you can save automatically). Take control of your health by making small dietary changes, or doing 30 minutes of exercise each day. Take control of your career by upskilling or enrolling in an online shortcourse. Anxiety happens when we’re not prepared, or we don’t feel in control – it’s what triggered panic buying at the start of the pandemic. With the world moving more and more out of our hands, look for small ways to control your own life.
4. Try and stay connected
Lockdown hurt for several reasons, but the big one was social isolation. We were physically cut-off from loved ones, friends, family, colleagues, and humanity in general, forced to live in a way human beings aren’t really designed to live: completely alone. Although staying connected during COVID-19 is hard, and Zoom fatigue is a real thing, evidence also shows that it’s definitely worth the effort. All you have to do is pick up the phone. “We underestimate the comfort that phone contact can bring,” says psychologist Sabina Read. “You can still feel a sense of connection and closeness, even if it’s not face-to-face.” The trick is making this resolution about more than your own need for community: figure out ways to reach out to those who are struggling, show them you care, check-in with elderly relatives, make an effort. It’s good for you, and it’s definitely good for others.
5. Do things for joy, not improvement
New Year’s resolutions are often framed around self-improvement. Learning a new skill, a new instrument, a new ability, a new language, not for the joy of the thing itself, but to become better at it. When you think about it, this is an odd way to look at learning, particularly if what you’re learning is meant to be fun. You don’t have to master a new skill to get some benefit from it. During the pandemic, everyone took up and promptly dropped certain hobbies – we all needed to bake away our troubles. But going into 2022, try and flip the traditional ‘learn something new’ resolution on its head. Instead, find something you enjoy doing, and do it for joy alone. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to improve or get better. Just enjoy the process of learning. Even learning something small can help your mind grow stronger.
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