A lot of us start the new year with resolutions for change. However, it can be really tough to get these to stick. Höchli et al (2019) suggests this is because often these goals are often broad and abstract, requiring sustained behavioural change. In this blog I’m curious about setting and adhering to New Year’s resolutions in the context of the ongoing pandemic, and I’m going to explore some ideas and research to help navigate through this. 

Firstly, in order to stick a goal has to matter to us.  Neale et al (2011) explain this by distinguishing between our values, our beliefs and our attitudes, using the metaphor of the tree.  Our values are what keep us rooted, what motivate us and make us tick – the roots of our tree.  Our beliefs are how certain we are about something – our stories about the world.  

To be effective, our goals need to be rooted in our values.  It’s helpful if we can understand what it is that is most important to us as we set ourselves goals.  And here, Neale et al (2011) suggest, we can ask: what does this value bring me?  What does it mean to me?   

Now our attitudes and beliefs can help us move forward to achieve our goals, or they can get in the way.  Our values motivate us, our beliefs and attitudes also sway us and influence our behaviour.  Sometimes our beliefs can be limiting (e.g. I’m not good enough, I can’t do that), and this is then reflected in our behaviour which manifests these beliefs as a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. (e.g. “I’m not good at meetings”, lo and behold, I trip over my words, get flustered, and then retreat into austere silence in my meeting).  They might not always coincide with our values, but these beliefs, attitudes, and behaviours can be entrenched habits.  So as we’re looking at making our resolutions, we need to ask ourselves: do my beliefs and attitudes support me to realise what is important to me?  Is there anything that is getting in the way of me realising my goals?   

 Secondly, I wanted to consider how we might set about formulating resolutions in a world in flux.  Social Psychologist Amy Cuddy has recently been talking about her (non-clinical) term ‘pandemic flux syndrome’ to describe a host of behaviours that are emerging in response to living liminally in the pandemic.  Cuddy describes how being suspended on a tightrope between constantly shifting markers of normalcy and crisis causes some people to want to ‘shut down’ and escape and others to want to take control.  We might see this emerging in ‘The Great Resignation of 2021’: resigning and changing jobs is one possible way of taking control. Cuddy talks people about being ‘denied a fresh start moment’ due to constant pandemic instability.  This might cause us to think about where we might want our resolutions to provide us with a fresh start, and where and whether this might be possible.  I’ll come back to this in a moment.  It’s important to contextualise Cuddy’s work in light of research so far that shows that in spite of enduring uncertainty and loss, people are incredibly resilient. 

If our world is in flux, Rinne (2021) suggests we can respond to this by shifting our goals from predicting to preparing, our plans from ‘all will go to plan’ to ‘plans will change’.  We might want change we can control, contends Rinne, however, letting go of a desire to control the future can be enabling.  My take on this is to home in on the present.  Two of my favourite ways of reflecting on where things are now and gaining insights to help orientation towards the future are: 

  1. Taking meaningful photographs (background and instructions here). In this exercise you take at least one meaningful photograph a day for 9 days and then reflect on why the photograph is meaningful to you.   
  2. Spending 30 minutes a day in nature (Hamman & Ivtzan, 2016): according to this article apparently the average human spends 95% of their time indoors – and this was before lockdown. 

I find that concentrating on the ‘now’ can help reaffirm values and what’s important in life; others will have their own ideas and activities that enable focus and a sense of purpose. 

So as we approach the season of resolutions, my thoughts are:   

 Home in your values, these are rooted in what matters to you and as such give you some form of stability. 

  1. The future is uncertain, so we can start in the now and focus in on what matters first.  I love this piece of advice from Rinne (2021): “Letting go of the illusion that you can control external circumstances releases you to focus on what you can control”. 
  2. Many of us have done and are doing incredible things, made big changes such as moving jobs or reconceiving our lifestyles.  As Aknin et al (2021) discuss, we are creative, we act, and we make the best of even the worst situation. 

 I’m not saying it’s obligatory to have resolutions, or indeed that we shouldn’t set any for this coming year.  As we’ve been exploring, resolutions may be particularly poignant and helpful to us to assert a sense of control and purpose in a time of flux.  So I want to leave you with some questions to reflect on: what matters most?  What could you work now on that would make a big difference to your life?  What might you need to let go of to enable you to focus? How can you bring the best of what is to 2022?   

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