Self / 30.12.2020

How to set meaningful New Year’s resolutions

By Kathryn Blundell
Each new year offers an opportunity to reflect on what we’ve learned over the past 12 months, and make plans for our future goals
Photograph: Shutterstock

Having our own-life debrief in January can highlight our strengths and uncover the areas which need attention, which can help us set meaningful New Year’s resolutions. ‘It’s the best way to recognise where things have gone well and where they haven’t. If we don’t reflect, we don’t learn from our experiences,’ says occupational psychologist Kim Stephenson. There are other benefits, too. ‘Taking stock is an opportunity to work out where we’re headed,’ says psychologist and careers coach Denise Taylor.

Reviewing our year also brings useful habits into focus. ‘The human brain is lazy and will default to following established patterns,’ says Stephenson. Reflection lets us review if those habits are good for us. It isn’t about beating yourself up, says Anne-Marie Mayers, a spiritual life coach trainer and founder of Soul Awakening Academy. ‘Contemplating past events makes us aware of our actions and emotions, and gets us to a state where we know ourselves.’

Periods of reflection don’t come easy to everyone. ‘Make it intentional – tell yourself the next two hours are just for analysing your year,’ says Taylor. If you get stumped, reach out. ‘Involving a friend can provide a more accurate picture of who we really are,’ says Stephenson. Sounds good?

Start with the positives

Write a list of achievements. What are you proud of? What challenges have you overcome in the past year? ‘This allows you to be more honest when thinking about problems,’ says Stephenson. ‘Focusing on where things went wrong can make us defensive. But even if there’s been some trauma – say, a relationship didn’t work out – there will be an important lesson in there,’ says Mayers.

Get a holistic view of your year

Give each of the following areas of your life a score of 10: money; personal growth; social life; relationships; family; health; attitude; career.

Use your insights. If your reflection has revealed some ‘could do betters’, or you want to build on achievements in the New Year, then it’s time to make a plan.

Setting your priorities

Hopefully, you now have a sense of what went well and how satisfied you are with life. That means you’re in a position to think about potential for change. What feels most urgent or will have a big impact on your satisfaction? Looking at your scores, how important is it to shake up each area? How would you want next year’s to look? The big changes could be the foundation for some of your New Year’s resolutions.

Plan to make it happen

Step 1: Talk to people

No plan is effective without information. Before you nail down your New Year’s resolutions, work out how your strengths fit where you have gaps in your knowledge. ‘So, if you want to change career, what skills do you need?’ says Taylor. This is where research is required. ‘Talk to people doing the thing you want to do. It may be your goal becomes less attractive when you dig deeper.’ Similarly, if you feel you communicate poorly, what expert advice can you find on the internet to help? Want a more romantic relationship – what does your partner say?

Step 2: Work out what you can give up

Some New Year’s resolutions involve changes to our lives – especially if it’s going to make demands on time or need investment. Scrutinise your spending and daily routine so you can see what can go. ‘So if you want to learn a new instrument to make your leisure time more fulfilling, you need time for lessons and practice, and probably money, too,’ says Taylor. ‘What sacrifices can you make?’

Step 3: Find out what’s possible

Having a written record of your resolutions helps you stay focused and on track. ‘There are lots of ways to do this, but the key thing is to have a clear definition of what you want to achieve and some thoughts on what strengths you have to help you along the way,’ says Stephenson. ‘It’s also worth making a note of what’s exciting about this goal, and how it can be measured.’

Step 4: Make it stick

Turning new behaviours into habits can take months. To help motivation stick, our experts recommend creating a dedicated mood board (see below). Add positive comments to a daily gratitude journal – three things that make life great – to help you stay on track. The main thing, though? That list of strengths. ‘Think how you can make more of what you do well. Play to other people’s strengths to mitigate for things you feel less confident of,’ says Stephenson.

How to create a New Year’s resolutions mood board

Whether it’s one picture on your fridge or a pinboard with quotes and photos, a mood board acts as a visual prompt to help us focus on our goals,’ says Taylor. But while you’re creating it, ‘explore your motives,’ says Mayers. ‘Knowing the reason you want something helps reinforce its message.’ A board is more effective if you turn it into a constant reminder – a screen saver, a picture in your purse, a note on your phone. To start your own mood board, draw an image or write meaningful words or references that you might include.