New year’s resolutions. We’ve all made them. We’ve all broken them. Sometimes we wonder, “why do I even bother?” Understand that, like many things in life that don’t often pan out, new year’s resolutions are made with the best intentions. But good intentions aren’t enough. In fact, intentions alone, without a plan that’s followed through to fruition, could actually be worse than having no plan or no idea. The feeling we get from failing to act on our intentions can leave us in worse shape, mentally and emotionally, than before the idea began. This often plays out as a vicious circle, with the person making a resolution; not following through or finishing; feeling bad; making another resolution the next year; feeling even worse after that falls through; and so on. How long does this roller coaster go on? Maybe it’s time to make one final resolution: stop making new year’s resolutions! But you still have intentions. Isn’t it time to finally act on them? Why not make a resolution that you can really get behind: Better Mental Health?
Why Resolutions (and Other Goals) Fail
The most popular (and most well-intentioned) resolutions all require work. Quite possibly the number one new year’s resolution is to lose weight. What do most people do? They join a gym, or go back to the one they joined (probably a year ago exactly!), and start the process. But they fall off again. Similar patterns follow for quitting smoking, drinking less, spending more time with family, learning a new hobby, etc. Why is this? Why do we fail to follow through on something we know is good for us, something we cared enough about to prioritize and resolve to amend just a short while ago? The reasons are many, and the speculation is rampant. For some people, the willpower is simply lacking. For others, they’ve made goals (and we use this term loosely) that are too broad or vague, and can’t be achieved without additional definition or clarity. Yet others give up because they want instant results, expecting immediate gratification; in the absence of this, they move on to other things that will bring them this instant satisfaction (food and alcohol are big ones!).
You know the roller coaster that those types of resolutions can bring. We’re not saying don’t have goals. On the contrary, we encourage them. The difference between a dream and a goal is a goal containing an action plan, one that is followed through to fruition. A good rule of thumb for goals is the “SMART” method. In this school, it is said that a goal ought to be Sustainable, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound. Let’s use that time-honoured resolution of “losing weight” as an example to define each of these criteria.
- Specific – Saying “losing weight” isn’t enough; you need to define what this looks like
- Measurable – Saying “I want to be thinner” is neither specific nor measurable; saying “I want lose 20 pounds” is both
- Attainable – Saying “I want to lose 75 pounds” might not be attainable; perhaps if you currently weight 250 lbs, maybe, but certainly not if your present weight is 150 lbs.
- Relevant – Is this the right goal to set? If you are already at a healthy weight and only want to lose weight so you can look like the models in Cosmopolitan or GQ, this probably isn’t the best goal you can be focused on (find another one that better suits your situation)
- Time-bound – Many people fail to achieve their goal(s) because they don’t set a deadline; saying “I will lose 20 pounds by the time my daughter walks on stage for her graduation in June” is a SMART goal, meeting all of these criteria
The “smarter” your goal is, the more likely you are to achieve it.
What’s the Right Way – the SMART Way – to Set and Follow Goals for Mental & Emotional Wellness?
As we talked about in the previous section, you’re more likely to achieve your goal – any goal – if it’s well-defined, doesn’t bite off more than you can chew, and can be measured and tracked. That’s why we want you to do more than set “Good Mental Health” as a goal. What does good mental health look like? Nobody knows. Oh sure, we might look at other people and say “she’s got her life together” or “he seems like a mentally sound, healthy person.” They key word there is “seems.” Just like nobody else knows what you might be dealing with on the inside, the same goes for those people we think of as having “good mental health.” Also, what seems like a good level of emotional stability to one person might not be acceptable to someone else – or it might not be a realistic goal. That’s why this vague and undefinable statement isn’t a good goal to have – nor is comparing ourselves to others. Instead, start by asking yourself some important questions (with respect to mental and emotional well-being):
- What do you want your life to look like? To feel like?
- What don’t you want to look & feel like?
- What habits or feelings do you want to eliminate, wherein doing so would contribute towards that better life?
- What is one action that you could take right now that would initiate the process? What first step could you take that would embark you on the journey to a better life?
- What is one habit that you could make a point of getting into, that would set yourself up for success?
Seeing a trend? Once you put in some thought as to the kind of life you want, you begin to develop specific habits and actions that would help build that life.
Avoid the “Happy” Trap
While it’s important to envision what a better life would look life, it’s even more important to avoid the H-word in defining it. “Happy” (and its derivative cousin, “happiness”) are not only vague goals, they have different meaning for different people. Moreover, we often don’t even know what would truly make us happy, and searching for what we think happiness is can lead to all kinds of pitfalls. Again, it’s time to get more specific. Instead of a “happy life” being your goal, what about saying:
“A life in which I feel healthier, worry less, have friends and family around me, get satisfaction from my work, and/or am grateful for what I have?”
Well, now, all of those would be great. And that, in its entirety would certainly be an ideal picture to be living, wouldn’t it? Of course, we can make that our new year’s resolution! But what we can do – and this is really important, so you don’t get discouraged or believe that you can never achieve that big life goal – is to take one step that would lead us in the direction of that goal. Then, to sustain this, take another step after that, until it becomes a series of steps. That series could be a habit.
Better Mental and Emotional Well-Being is Worth the Work
Taking our SMART approach, we know that getting what we want is a process. This process means work. It means setting a SMART goal and being committed to following through on it. The work isn’t necessarily easy – most worthwhile things in life aren’t easy, are they – but then again, the goal shouldn’t be so difficult that you’ll give up on it soon after. And the work won’t necessarily produce instant results. But it will, if followed through with a firm commitment – yield results.
The last part of the big goal – “grateful for what I have” – could be a great habit to start with. That’s actually a fine new year’s resolution right there. “This year, I want to be grateful. I’m going to practice gratitude. I’m going to keep a gratitude journal. And I’m going to express my gratitude towards others.”
Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Make your goal something manageable. You’d be surprised how the seemingly “little” things in life can add up – in very positive ways.
Capital Choice Counselling in Ottawa Can Help You Start 2018 Strong
If you have a mental health goal, know you want to get better but aren’t sure where to start, we can help. At Capital Choice Counselling in Ottawa, we have a team of experts who a trained and experienced in a wide variety of mental and emotional health issues. Contact us today to get started on your goals for a strong and healthy 2018!