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Why setting a New Year's reflection might be better than a resolution for 2021

While setting a resolution for 2021 might seem daunting, experts say people can learn from 2020 and make smarter goals.
New Year's resolutions may look a little different in 2021.
New Year's resolutions may look a little different in 2021.TODAY Illustration / Getty Images / Shutterstock
/ Source: TODAY

After 2020, many people might want to ditch New Year’s resolutions altogether. For some, getting through the day feels like more than enough. Trying to reach some audacious goal feels laughable. Experts say that after this difficult year, resolutions might undergo a makeover — and this is a good thing.

“I do think it is a healthy practice to look at your life and identify ways to grow. We know that people don’t often succeed at New Year’s resolutions because they tend to be lofty and require really big, sweeping changes,” Sophie Lazarus, a clinical psychologist at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, told TODAY. “(After) people have been asked to adapt to so many things, setting these big goals is setting ourselves up to be discouraged.”

That doesn’t mean that Lazarus believes people should skip thinking about things they’d like to change next year. She just thinks they should take a more reasonable approach.

“We should be paying attention to our lives and making more small, incremental changes that benefit our well-being,” she said.

Dr. Deborah Gilboa, a resiliency expert based in Pittsburgh, agrees that this year, in particular, people might want to reconsider resolutions.

“It’s a great time to reflect on lessons learned,” she told TODAY. “We have the opportunity to look back and see ‘Oh I would have never done that if it wasn’t for everything that happened and I want to keep it.’”

While 2020 did disrupt so much, many people adapted and those new habits might be good ones. Families might realize that game night is a tradition that should stay even after coronavirus restrictions lessen. Or perhaps thanks to everyone’s newfound familiarity with Zoom, people will invite loved ones from across the country to regular get-togethers.

“Everybody I talked to has said to me some things that they learned that they don't want to forget,” Gilboa said.

While people often joke about resolutions being broken only a few days into January, Gilboa believes there could be some benefit at looking at what one resolved last year and adapting that. Instead of setting hard-to-attain, lofty goals, people can focus on simply what they want to do differently.

“A lot of New Year’s resolutions don’t age well, but New Year’s reflections can age really well,” she said. “You have the option (this year) to come up with true resolutions, things that you are resolute about. Like ‘My family will continue to be my priority’ or ‘I’ve seen the importance of health and I’m going to carry that forward with me.’”

Lazarus hopes that if people set resolutions or goals, that they don’t involve self-criticism.

“We could really benefit from having our goals come from a place of kindness and having a greater sense of well-being about what is going to be healthy and positive,” she said. “There is so much stress and lots of things that are out of our control … Being really harsh and critical, that only increases your stress.”

If people struggle with being kinder to themselves, she suggests they think of what they might say to a friend or family member who was being hard on themselves.

“Give yourself the same grace you would give to a friend,” she said. “It is wise to adjust our expectations to the current circumstances.”

Lazarus said practicing mindfulness can help and that doesn’t have to look like meditation. People could simply try being in the moment when they do something, such as take a shower. This increased mindfulness can help people both when thinking of self-evaluation but also when grappling with pandemic stressors. For those still looking for concrete ways to better evaluate their efforts, Lazarus has some advice.

“There are two things that would be helpful if you are trying to set some type of resolution: Look honestly at your capacity. How much energy and time and space do you have? Really adapt your goal to that,” she said “Really look at your life. What is most important to you? What matters most or do you value? If you set a goal or make a small change that should be related to that.”