Expert advice on how to tackle resolutions for 2021

After a year like 2020, here are some suggestions for reframing your personal goals in these strange times.

After a year like 2020, here are some suggestions for reframing your personal goals in these strange times

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

Well, folks, 2020 sure has been a tumultuous year. You might be asking yourself what's the point of having a new year's resolution, with not a party to attend and nobody to gloat to. Should you just roll over and forget about this self-improvement holiday altogether? 

Some of the most common personal resolutions relate to exercise, mental health, money and relationships — all of which have taken a hit for so many during the pandemic. If you're looking to establish resolutions for 2021 in those areas, we turned to experts for advice on how to perhaps reframe and fine-tune your plans to these odd times.


So you've decided to make your resolution exercise-specific. Classic! 

"Approximately 80 per cent of new year's resolutions are about weight loss," said Mary Jung, an associate professor at UBC's school of health and exercise sciences. While some people make this decision for health reasons, often it's about appearance. "First you should make sure that your motivations are healthy ones," she said. 

If you can't get to the gym because of the pandemic and you won't be seeing anyone anytime soon, are you still motivated to get fit? If the answer is "yes", she suggests your next step should be taking stock of your normal exercise routine and abilities before setting any goals. 

"You want to set goals that are achievable, even if they are somewhat easy or on the light side," said Jung. Ideally, you should track your activity over the course of a few days to a week before making an exercise plan. Try a 10 per cent increase in activity to start. "Somebody who jumps up by 25 per cent or 50 per cent of what they're currently doing will quickly derail," Jung said. 

That means avoiding stock goals like those set by smartwatches or fitness influencers. If you want advice specific to you, "look for credentials," Jung said. "Someone with a medical degree or a registered dietitian or clinical counselor."

Ultimately, self-compassion is key. "New year is not the time to beat yourself into forcing goals or forcing behaviours, because it probably will be very short-lived," she said. "Giving yourself the space to recognize the crazy challenges of this time, even if it seems counterintuitive, will more likely lead to behaviour change."

Mental health

Studies have shown a rise in both anxiety and depression during the pandemic, with women and parents with young children experiencing a much greater increase in mental health symptoms.

How can people with heightened anxiety manage their stress? 

"Stay connected," said Brett Thombs, a professor in the faculty of medicine at McGill University. He is currently leading a team studying the mental health impacts of COVID-19 worldwide. 

"This is critical," he said. "Use Zoom or another program to connect with people, and do something fun. In normal times, we engage to watch sports or other events, play games like cards, or just talk." Try setting up regular video calls with friends and relatives.

Keeping yourself occupied is important too, and resolving to do more of what you enjoy can have a big impact. "It may not be at the same level as in normal times, but keeping engaged can help to keep your mind away from unproductive worrying," said Thombs.

He emphasizes you shouldn't hesitate to seek help when you need it. "There are great programs online that you can access to help you manage worry and anxiety and to relax, like medication or breathing routines," said Thombs. "They are easy, don't take much time, and can be done anywhere."

And he points out exercise is a good way to relieve stress. "Even though it isn't as easy to exercise as in normal times, just keeping moving will do wonders," he said. "Go for a walk, do some light exercises in front of the TV — whatever you can do."


Now that you've decided to be nicer to yourself, what about the other people in your life? Allison Villa, a registered psychotherapist and relationship expert, suggests making new year's reflections instead of resolutions this year.

"Having a reflective practice allows for deep-level learning," Villa said. "Reflecting allows you to think critically about yourself and your personal experience, which means that you're able to learn from your real-life lessons and make improved choices moving forwards."

Villa suggests a few ideas to help you get started.

Ask yourself what you feel proud of this year and what is one small change that could have a big impact on your life.

Doing this with your partner can help you both celebrate your wins together and explore how you might want to do things differently in the new year.

"Write a gratefulness love note to your partner," said Villa. "Find one to three thoughtful sentences to express your feelings. Be specific and kind with your words." Keep it in a place where you'll see it every day, and this small note will have a huge impact.


Judith Cane, a financial coach based in New Brunswick, said despite the many challenges of 2020, the year is also providing many people with an excuse to go over their finances. 

"People are looking for some kind of stability," she said. Making a savings plan, even a small one, can help provide that emotional and financial assurance. 

Cane's top piece of advice for people trying to get a handle on their money is to stop the "leakage." 

"If you drove your car out of the driveway and you saw a wet spot on the ground, you wouldn't just ignore it," she said. You should be doing the same thing with your wallet. Small purchases are often the culprits behind unseen spending: your daily lattes, your ATM fees. How much would you save every month if you resolved to cut some of them from your routine? 

Cane also suggests not saving your credit card information in your browser. A free trial here, an Amazon bauble there — one-click purchasing doesn't leave you time to consider before you buy. Having to get up and fetch your wallet might help you catch unnecessary spending.

If you're looking for an educational resolution this year, you might want to take this opportunity to become more financially literate. 

"Understanding your investments is a good place to start," said Cane. "There are a lot of people who put their money into RSPs, and they don't really know what they're investing in." If you don't understand something, Cane suggests finding blogs, taking out books at the library (for free!) or asking your advisor.

Teaching kids about money is another goal Cane suggests setting. "Everybody says they don't know how to talk to their kids about money, but here's a really simple thing to do," Cane said. One exercise she suggests is to take your kids grocery shopping and give them part of the grocery list and just enough money to buy those things. Tell them that they can keep whatever change is leftover for themselves.

"You would be amazed," Cane said. "Every time I've given this challenge to people, their kids have embraced it and ended up with change."

Chloe Rose Stuart-Ulin is a journalist based in Montreal. Her stories on tech, cannabis, and government policy have appeared in CBC, the Globe and Mail, Maisonneuve, and Quartz, among others.

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