When it comes to New Year’s resolutions, people are either staunch defenders of the practice or vocal critics. On one hand, resolutions provide purpose and structure for those interested in self-improvement; on the other hand, they tend not to work.
Most people quit their resolutions after a couple of months, said Melissa Coats, a licensed professional counselor, psychotherapist and owner of Coats Counseling in Georgia. If you struggle with anxiety or feelings of inadequacy, she explained, the pressure to succeed can be particularly damaging.
That’s why experts recommend creating resolutions that serve your mental or emotional health instead of setting goals around weight management or money. “When we put energy towards protecting our mental health, we make an investment that pays off all year,” added Ginger Houghton, a licensed master social worker and owner of Bright Spot Counseling in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.
The trick is to create resolutions that are “focused more on holistic improvement and progress,” Coats said, rather than on achieving a specific result. Think of your resolution as an intention, or “a conscious daily, weekly or monthly choice that will help you improve an area of your life,” Coats explained.
If you’re unsure where to begin, start by reflecting on your past year, Houghton said. This includes thinking about what you struggled with and what went well. From there, pick one or two areas to focus on.
And remember that it’s a process, not necessarily something that’s going to be achieved quickly. “Give yourself permission to not get it perfectly all the time,” Coats added.
Ultimately, the best resolutions are the ones that work for you, but if you need some ideas, we’re here to help. Below are practical, impactful resolutions therapists suggest making this year (no diet necessary).
1. Say ‘no’ more often
You’re not obligated to say yes to every social invitation, family event or favor. “Saying ‘no’ is an important way that we can protect our boundaries as well as [practice] self-care,” said Rachel Tomlinson, a registered psychologist in Perth, Australia.
Start paying more attention to how certain requests or expectations make you feel, she suggested. “If you are worrying about what is being asked of you, or you feel angry, stressed or anxious, chances are this is going to be some kind of imposition on you, or something you don’t want to do,” she added.
You can also run through the various costs and benefits of saying yes or no, Tomlinson said, which will help you understand your motivations and concerns.
If someone responds negatively to your choice, try not to take it personally. Remind yourself that you’re not being rude, Tomlinson said, you’re prioritizing your well-being. The beauty of saying no to a potentially taxing or uncomfortable situation is that it actually means saying yes to something more meaningful to you, like recharging or spending time with loved ones.
2. Prioritize sleep
Quality sleep is the linchpin of good mental and physical health. “Studies show that not only are we more irritable and anxious and depressed when we’re not sleeping well, but we also struggle to function as well intellectually,” Houghton said.
Solid sleep can increase your alertness and energy levels, and even help you make healthier choices around food. Aim to score at least seven hours of restful sleep a night, and work on establishing regular sleeping and waking times, as well as good sleep hygiene.
“Small habits are really effective when it comes to sleep, such as not watching TV in bed for long periods, not doing work in bed [and] not staying in bed for longer than 20 minutes when you can’t fall asleep,” Houghton said.
3. Start journaling in the morning
If you wake up flooded with thoughts of your to-do list, you’re not alone. But jumping straight into task mode inhibits “our ability to get in touch with our own feelings, energy level and need to be present,” Coats said.
Before you rush out the door or start responding to emails in bed, spend five to 10 minutes journaling. If you like structure, Coats said, you can follow writing prompts, list things you’re grateful for or jot down positive affirmations. Otherwise, just try writing stream-of-consciousness style about how you feel.
Checking in with yourself first thing in the morning can help curb negative self-talk and ultimately help you feel more grounded and less anxious throughout the day, Coats said.
4. Change how you talk about things
Language has immense power. “What we tell ourselves creates an emotion, and that emotion yields a behavior,” said Autumn Collier, a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist at Collier Counseling in the Atlanta area. The key to shifting your perspective and simultaneously developing healthier habits is changing your internal dialogue.
Collier recommended replacing the phrase “I should” with the words “I’d like to.” For example, instead of saying “I should call my mom more often,” switch it to “I’d like to call my mom twice a week to catch up.”
“The word ‘should’ places an expectation of perfection on our lives that is often unrealistic,” Collier said, whereas “the phrase ‘I’d like to’ removes the feeling of not being enough and lowers the stake.”
5. Make more time for self-care
Carving out time to take care of yourself isn’t a luxury — it’s a necessity. Dedicated “you time” is crucial to your mental and emotional well-being, which is why Coats recommended scheduling at least one hour a week to do something that nurtures you, whether it’s a long walk, pottery class or coffee date with a friend.
Then, “if you find yourself reverting back to destructive habits, patterns or thoughts, take out your planner and find the last time you had a self-care appointment,” Coats said. If you feel overly tired, increasingly anxious or easily irritable, you might need to schedule your self-care rituals more frequently, she added.
6. Set a daily intention
Tess Brigham, a licensed therapist based in San Francisco, said daily intentions help create a road map for what you want to accomplish throughout your day, but, more important, they set the tone for how you want to act and feel.
“Intentions should always be framed in the positive so it automatically shifts your mindset from a place of fear or lack into a place of abundance and hope,” she said.
You can go broad or specific. For example, “I will be open and thoughtful toward every person I encounter,” Brigham suggested, or “I will spend at least one hour working on that project I keep putting off.” Try anchoring your intention-setting practice to a daily task, like brushing your teeth, she said, so you don’t forget.
7. Learn something new
“It’s really helpful for our mood, our self-esteem and our outlook on life if we focus on learning and growing throughout our lives,” Houghton said.
What have you always been interested in learning but felt either too busy or fearful to prioritize? That’s what you should focus on.
“This could mean learning how to make cheese, doing genealogy, learning how to read a palm, learning yoga or going back to something you loved as a kid,” Houghton explained.
The point isn’t to perfect a new skill but to stimulate your mind, challenge yourself and discover the joy in learning for learning’s sake.