As we celebrate the beginning of a new year, many of us begin to contemplate how we might better ourselves over the next 12 months. Coworkers might ask us about our new years’ resolutions or personal goals, and ads for diets, weight loss supplements, and exercise equipment inundate our feeds and television screens. Goal setting is viewed as an overwhelmingly positive endeavor, with questions about goals and tentative 5-year plans coming up frequently in settings such as job interviews. We are a society trained to look to the future, a mindset that is widely viewed as an asset. While forward thinking can be positive and aids in life skills such as planning and anticipating, it also has associations with mental health challenges such as anxiety and depression.
What if we entered into this new year thinking differently about goals and resolutions? Goals, which are time bound and measurable, are inherently pass or fail; we either achieve a set goal or we don’t. Further, goals are only momentary. For most of us, the successful achievement of a goal doesn’t lead to any long-term change, and we typically return to our old habits. We also often associate goals with happiness, which puts conditions on our self-esteem and self-concept. “I will be happy when…” is a common preface when thinking about goals and resolutions. Taking advantage of a goal setting framework can be helpful in the workplace or at school, but often falls short when it comes to ourselves.
It’s time to meet yourself where you’re at. Take a look at your life and daily routines and identify some things that you’re already doing well. Do you take time to exercise? Are you eating breakfast every day? Do you keep up with hygiene and bodily self-care? How often are you making time for reading, practicing an instrument, or spending time outside? Do you take time to connect with friends and loved ones? Look for items, big and small, that you feel good about and wouldn’t necessarily want to change. These are areas where you can add in new habits and routines that you’ve wanted to incorporate but aren’t sure how. If you spend time on your phone reading the news and also want to learn a language, find an app like Duolingo and tack on some language learning time. If you exercise regularly and want to spend more time outdoors, look into how you might do some of your exercise outside. When thinking about any potential changes, keep them small and easy, anchoring them to routines and habits that are already a part of your life. Further, give yourself permission to view your progress in the “gray zone.” Success and failure, when it comes to these kinds of changes, is not black and white (all-or-nothing). Keep your eye on the bigger picture.
Another helpful way to consider change in the new year is to think about setting an intention rather than a goal. What’s the difference? Apart from what’s already been covered regarding goals, which are primarily focused on external, future destinations or achievements, intentions are focused on our relationship with ourselves and take place in the here and now present moment. If you’re someone who’s benefitted even minimally from mindfulness practices, one of the most lauded and versatile mental health practices, then intention setting is likely going to resonate. You can’t fail at intention setting. Intentions aren’t dependent on a specific outcome. Intentions come without the dopamine hit that accompanies getting closer to reaching a goal, which is a fleeting feeling with an end point, rooted more in external measures than in real, internal change. Intentions are essentially a determination to act or do something in a particular way. Setting an intention can be as simple as using a positive affirmation. For instance, if I decide I want to think more positively, I’ve already started by putting that intention out there, and it’s something I’ll keep in mind as I go about my days. Goals can supplement intentions. To help me think more positively, I might use a gratitude journal at the end of each day.
Intention setting might sound overly simple, though that goes to show how powerful a change in thinking can be. When we begin to think differently, we can actually rewire our neural pathways and change our brain. Intention setting allows us to set a new direction for our lives, gives us hope, and places the power of our lives back in our own hands. Meet yourself where you’re at; start with an intention and see where it takes you.
Dannica Conley, M.Ed., BA
Therapist at Think Happy Live Healthy