Sticking to your New Year resolution the right way—psychologists tell you how

We give you the lo-down on how to set goals in 2023 the SMART way

Harper's Bazaar India

It’s that time of the year where you, filled with renewed energy and gusto, are all set to begin the year with a ‘ New Year, new me’ approach. That means one thing and one thing alone—setting a New Year resolution. While we wish you all the very best for having taken the time out to decide that you’re going to improve on yourself, we look to make things simpler and smarter for you by having some of the best psychologists tell you the dos and don’ts of setting them. 


Why do we do this (set New Year resolutions) in the first week of January to begin with? According to Kamna Chhibber, clinical psychologist and head of the Department of Mental Health and Behavioral Sciences at Fortis Healthcare, she feels that it’s more to do with the world that we today live in. “I think what’s happened is that it’s become more of a cultural and societal thing where New Year has gotten associated with the fact that one will keep a resolution. It’s a fresh year so let’s try out something new and different and as a result it is a good time to start afresh—especially in areas which you think you haven’t been able to build on or places where you thought you need improvement. It’s just the narrative that’s gotten built into society in a way where everyone keeps talking about it, and you want to be a part of it since you’re hearing it all the time. You don’t want to not do what everyone else is doing.” 


According to Sherene Aftab, founder at Serene Hour Counselling & Career Advice Consultancy, people set the resolutions wrongly because we’re all still coming to terms with what works best for us. “We all start with gusto and leave things midway because some things come in the way and make us wonder if we can ever go back. Add to that, we set very huge goals, to begin with. They aren’t attainable or flexible, plus we don’t have the time, motivation, or energy to achieve them. What one also tends to forget is that you don’t know what a person is going through when they set these resolutions.” 

Chhibber makes a very telling statement that sometimes, these resolutions work and don’t because of the people around you. “People, sometimes, may not be having the adequate support system needed to bring about the change. Every change is not about you. You need that encouragement, support and motivation from elsewhere.”

Mehezabin Dordi, clinical psychologist, Sir H. N. Reliance Foundation Hospital, Mumbai, mentions that instead of taking a chill-pill, we tend to overcomplicate things but putting too much pressure on the resolutions that we set. “When we talk about New Year resolutions, people feel that there is a huge weight on their shoulders, which is why what they set out to do need to be something miraculous or monumental. So start with basic goals, since that serves as it a motivation for other goals. Also, don’t make too many of them. It is always important to invest and focus energy into one thing.” 

What we also mustn’t do, according to Aftab, is comparing. “It’s important to cut out the comparisons. You’re looking at social media and that ignites your insecurity about a goal that you wanted to achieve. You don’t know their journey and what it took for them to achieve it. But you’re looking at people and judging them according to your journey and that’s a complete no-go.” 

Dordi also gives a valuable piece of advice by suggesting that New Year should also mean new resolutions. “Another thing that people don’t notice is that they’ve been keeping the same New Year resolution for years. But nothing has happened. It’s important to go back to the drawing board and evaluate why it didn’t happen. What worked and didn’t work. Was there something that prevented you from achieving it? A little bit of self-introspection and asking these questions are important.” 


Taking a step back and keeping things small and simple is the way to go for Aftab and Chhibber. “My favourite way to do it is to not make a resolution immediately at the start, but to take stock of your life and think about what needs to change in order to make my life better. Set simpler and smaller goals. Don’t start with a huge mountain but with a tiny hill. Take small steps and do that regularly so that it becomes a habit. That way, you don’t feel like you’re going off track,” says the former. The pace is equally important according to Chhibber. “Do it slowly and steadily with small steps towards that large change that you want to see. Sometimes, you become way too ambitious. I think what people do is that they want to achieve too many things. That can also be very overwhelming. Because the change in itself is never easy—you’ve got so much going on in your life. Navigating that, in itself, is a challenge so adding 3-4 new things to this list isn’t easy. Too many big things coming in, those tend to be the primary reason.”


The key here is to play smart. Dordi tells us how. “What we see a lot of times is that the goals aren’t fleshed out very well. Let me give you an example. If my goal is to lose weight, the sentence itself is very abstract and not well defined. The important thing here is how, when and what. What I say is to operate with the SMART step. It’s an acronym—Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-based.” 

“So when I say lose weight, how do I make it more specific? It could be to lose 2kgs per month for the coming 12 months. And when I say 2kgs, it becomes measurable as I have a weighing scale. Coming to the attainable, now when I say ‘I want to lose 20kgs in one month’, it is a very stupid goal to set unless I have a disease. So take a step back and set goals within your capacity. So it reinforces the point that you can do it and motivates you. Then, the goals must be aligned with your values and long-term objectives with respect to why you want to do this in the first place. The last one, it has to be timely. You can’t just decide to do things when you want. So set a realistic date that you will do this in this much time,” says Dordi giving us the recipe for a successful New Year resolution. 


Remember the story of the frog who kept churning milk until it turned into curd? That’s exactly what we need to do should we falter at any point while keeping and sticking to our resolutions. “What I reinforce several times to my patients is to tell them that it’s taken them years to develop that habit. So it’s not going to change in the matter of days or weeks. Take a step down approach and be patient. It’s going to take time plus you have to work towards that goal. You can also restart it if you falter. The process is important than anything else. When you’re running a race, the rule book doesn’t say you can’t fall down. You get up and run. Pick yourself and go again,” says Dordi. Not being hard on yourself is the way to go as per Aftab. “If you failed, there are reasons why. Once you understood the reasons why you couldn’t do it, take it as a positive for you now understand yourself better. You got to forgive yourself. We get a new day, every day.”

So start today, and start SMART!