Published: 14 January 2021. Written by: Lizzie Simmonds
January 2021. The start of a new year; a time usually dedicated to New Year intentions, fresh beginnings and purposeful change. But with the COVID-19 pandemic still very much present in our communities, and a third national lockdown underway here in the UK, the beginning of 2021 hasn’t quite been the clean slate many of us had hoped for.
It’s easy to feel disheartened by the continued restrictions that we’re facing, but I think this year presents a unique opportunity to approach our resolutions and goals with a slightly different mindset. If there is one thing 2020 has given us, it’s the gift of perspective—living through times of crisis has offered some real clarity on the things that are truly important to us.
So instead of feeling guilty about not being able to stick to the latest diet this January, let’s focus on taking things a day at a time and commit to enriching our lives with meaningful intentions and experiences.
Think about adding, not restricting
Our New Year intentions are often characterised by abstinence. Heavy with the guilt of over-indulgence at Christmas, we vow to give up the booze, the smoking, the calories and the fun, sure that this year will be the year that we evolve into our perfect future selves.
Yet, come late-Jan, the new year’s enthusiasm is often as weary as the weather outside, and many will have slipped back into old habits, deciding, on second thoughts, that maybe next year will be their year of transformation!
For me, part of the problem is the way we usually phrase our New Year intentions. The starting point is often one of self-criticism—a view that we need ‘fixing’ by removing vices from our lives on the quest for health and happiness.
This year why not try starting from a position of acceptance, and list all the things you want to add to your life instead.
- Adding more gratitude and initiating small acts of kindness
- Adding more self-love, self-care and positive self-talk
- Adding more learning opportunities
- Adding more vegetables
- Adding more fresh air, ensuring you use your exercise slot
- Adding more long walks, bike rides or living room yoga
Even if you do have something you really want to cut down on, it’s often possible to frame it with a positive and energising spin. For example, ‘More days focusing on connecting with family and friends, instead of just watching TV on screens’.
What can you add to your life to make it richer and fuller this year?
Don’t get hung up on the start date for making positive changes
Because I’m from an elite sporting background, New Year’s Resolutions have never really played a huge part in my life. The beginning of the ‘year’ as an athlete was always the start of the season in September, so that’s when my goals for the year would be mapped out and relevant changes made. In reality, though, sportswomen and men are continually adjusting and striving for improvements, no matter the date on the calendar.
As a result, I have a slight mistrust of the sentiment that it must be the start of a day, a month, or a year to make positive changes. What’s wrong with right now? Making a rule that you can only ever start something on a specific day—Mondays, month beginnings, solar eclipses, or when Mercury is in retrograde—is just procrastination at its finest!
This restrictive mindset can also be unhelpful if you slip up along the way. If your goal is to go vegan for the whole week, but you cave in and make a bacon sarnie on Tuesday morning, many people will write off the rest of the week, thinking their ‘cheat’ on Tuesday disqualifies them until the next arbitrary start date they’ve set (usually the following Monday will seem like a good time to try again!)
If you don’t hit your target with a new habit it doesn’t invalidate your previous efforts, and it certainly doesn’t render you immune from the benefits of future efforts.
So, don’t worry if you didn’t kick into healthy ‘new me’, New Year intentions action on January 1st. Right now is as good a time as any to start taking those first steps. And remember, we’re all human and we’re not infallible—if and when you slip up, laugh it off, reset and go again.
Consider who you want to be this year, not just what you want to achieve
When it comes to making positive changes, our identity can play a huge part in keeping us motivated. Elite athletes don’t just have a set of goals to strive towards; they also have an incredibly strong sense of who they are, and the behaviours they need to adopt in order to achieve those goals.
Having a strong sense of purpose can be far more powerful than just having an outcome in mind, and deciding the kind of person you want to be can go a long way towards helping you make positive behavioural changes.
As an example of this concept in action, lots of people start a new year with a goal similar to this: “I want to get fit and lose weight this year”.
But instead of obsessing and despairing about the numbers on the scale, we can instead change the narrative to focus on positive identity and purpose:
“I want to be a parent who can keep up when running around with my kids.”
“I want to be someone who inspires and motivates their colleagues.”
“I want to be someone who can truly enjoy mealtimes because I know I lead an active, healthy lifestyle.”
Ultimately, we’re striving for a similar result but for many people, the motivation to get there is much more sustainable if they make a decision about who they want to be, not just what they want to achieve.
Perhaps even more importantly, being clear about identity and intentions is going to help us stick with new habits, even after the goal is achieved when it can be tempting to fall back into old routines.
So, what are your identity goals for the year?
When making positive changes to your life, it can be really easy to try and go too big too soon. Motivated by the start of the new year, it’s not uncommon to see people declaring all the things they plan to achieve over the next 12 months, and then diving in with boundless enthusiasm and energy.
Whilst this is an admirably courageous approach, it can result in disaster when, a couple of weeks in, you start feeling burnt out and overwhelmed by all the improvements you’re trying to make too quickly.
The key here is to start slow. Try going for a 5-minute run to begin with, not 5km. Aim for healthy changes to one meal a day rather than trying to revolutionise your family’s diet in one go. Introduce 10 minutes of guided meditation or quiet time each morning, rather than committing to being more chilled than a Zen Master by February. Take the first steps towards becoming a great leader at work with a short, personalised message of support and appreciation to your team members.
It really doesn’t matter how small the first action is—once the new behaviour is part of your routine it’s easy for that behaviour to propagate until it becomes your new norm. The challenge isn’t to will your way past unbearable cravings, it’s to re-wire your brain to enjoy your new habits.
Make sure you track your progress in your New Year intentions and reward yourself too, even if it’s only a tiny step forwards that you’ve achieved. Small steps that are consistently applied are likely to give you the best results in the long run.
Be kind to yourself
Finally, it may be a time for New Year intentions and a fresh start, but the latest lockdown announcement is a very real reminder that the challenges and impact of the pandemic can’t just be forgotten. Make sure to give yourself time and space to reflect and evolve in these ever-changing circumstances, and continue to reach out for additional support if you need it.
2021 holds a lot of hope, but success this year starts with accepting the unique journey you’re on and being kind and objective about the progress you make along the way.
For more of Lizzie’s expertise and opinion, read her blog How To Motivate Yourself Like An Elite Athlete.
Lizzie enjoyed a long career as an international swimmer, securing medals at Commonwealth, European and World Championship level. She also competed for Team GB at two Olympic Games, Beijing in 2008 and London in 2012, where she finished sixth and fourth respectively. She retired from professional competition in 2018, but still holds influence within the sporting sphere, supporting fellow elite athletes throughout and beyond their sporting careers.
Lizzie is also passionate about health and wellbeing and is one of Vitality’s Performance Champions, delivering motivational talks and workshops, and inspiring people across the nation to get active and healthy.
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