7 Ways to Make New Year's Resolutions That Actually Work for 2021

7 Ways to Make New Year's Resolutions That Actually Work for 2021

It’s the time of year when many people reflect back on the past 12 months, look forward to the next 12 months, and make New Year’s resolutions. It’s often a hopeful time when we envision what we truly want and what steps we need to take to reach those goals.

However, given what a roller coaster 2020 was and the uncertainties we face in 2021, your mood toward resolutions might be different. That’s totally OK.

“Making a resolution can be an act of hope and looking forward, which is lovely, but it would need to be made in a particular way in order to be helpful,” says licensed clinical psychologist Jo Eckler, PsyD, author of I Can’t Fix You — Because You’re Not Broken: The Eight Keys to Freeing Yourself From Painful Thoughts and Feelings.

That applies any year, but especially this year. Here’s how experts recommend going about making New Year’s resolutions for 2021. Even if you choose not to make any resolutions, these tips may help put you in a constructive mindset for the year.

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1. Stick to Areas You Can Control

“In addition to the loss of livelihoods and people we love, 2020 was a difficult year because of the loss of control,” says licensed psychologist Heather Z. Lyons, PhD, owner of the Baltimore Therapy Group. “Those who stayed afloat were ones who recognized areas where they still had control and asserted that control, such as engaging in self-care, staying in touch with loved ones, and other healthy behaviors.”

Successful resolutions capitalize on the areas of life where we still have control, she says. This could include your physical activity, social life (even if that’s via video calls), diet, or hobbies. Keep your resolutions related to these things, rather than something you cannot control, such as “I’m going to get into a committed relationship” or “I’m going to get a promotion.”

If you hope for these things, instead make a resolution about a concrete step toward that end goal, such as “I’m going to brush up on my skills by attending [fill in the blank] training sessions.”


2. Focus on Things You Value

family watching sunset in nature | new years resolutions

It’s so easy to get caught up in other people’s New Year’s resolutions. But remember what your parents told you when you were a kid: Just because everyone else is doing something doesn’t mean you have to. There’s no reason to try a vegan diet or sign up for a 10K if those things don’t resonate with you.

“Use 2020 as an opportunity to take stock of what’s important to you,” Lyons says. “The areas where you’ve felt grief and anxiety are the areas of importance. Focus your resolutions there.”

For example, if you felt lonely, focus on resolutions related to increasing your involvement and socializing, she says.


3. Gauge Your Enthusiasm

“New Year’s resolutions can either be a source of inspiration, motivation, and commitment, or an instrument of blunt force that we use to set ourselves up for failure, disappointment, and shame,” says Brooke Nicole Smith, PhD, a former cognitive psychology researcher and current mind and body confidence expert for women. “Make sure that you’re thinking about your resolutions in a way that feels inspiring, not from a place of self-punishment.”

Nobody needs that, especially these days. You want to feel excited about not only reaching your goal but also the process of working toward it.


4. Be Less Specific

Usually it’s best to set SMART goals (that is, ones that are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-based). But the unpredictability of 2020 “made it clear that we have to be flexible,” says Eckler. “So set something that leaves room to adjust.” Instead of “lift weights or do HIIT three days a week,” you might try “do some kind of physical activity three days a week.” Rather than “meditate for 20 minutes each day,” maybe your resolution is “meditate each day for 14 days.”


5. Think Before You Choose

woman thinking while writing in notebook | new years resolutions

“We tend to make resolutions based on what we want to stop or get rid of, but most of us hate losing things,” says Eckler. “Try to think about what you want more of. For example, do you want to have more energy? More quality time?”

From there, determine what small steps would help you achieve those goals. Would not watching TV past 10 p.m. help you fall asleep faster, and volunteering for your kids’ school half as much give you more time to truly spend with them?


6. Set an Intention Instead

Rather than making a resolution about a specific behavior, think about a theme or intention. “It’s more flexible to say that you resolve to ‘be more present’ or ‘play more,’ increasing the chances you’ll be able to follow through no matter what happens,” Eckler explains.

Smith adds that this also gives you something to focus on without any clear success or failure criteria. This can especially help those who tend to drop their resolutions.


7. Make Peace With 2020

“Check in with your narrative about 2020,” suggests Smith. “What’s the story you’re telling yourself? If you go to sleep on December 31 expecting the world to be drastically different when you wake up on January 1, you’re likely to be disappointed. But if you approach the new year by first appreciating 2020, you’ll wake up feeling a little better no matter what the world brings.”

And if “appreciating 2020” feels like too much, it’s fine to simply appreciate that it’s over!

brittany risher


Brittany Risher Englert is an accomplished content strategist, editor, and writer specializing in health, mental health, and mindfulness content. After earning her bachelor's and master's degrees in journalism from Northwestern University, she worked at Men's Health, Prevention, Women's Health, Shape, and Greatist before going freelance three years ago. Today she works with brands and publications, helping them create content that engages their audience and builds brand loyalty. Considered a "Swiss Army knife for content," Brittany helps with all things content, from editorial strategy and project management to editing and writing. Her clients include Sonima, Men's Health, Women's Health, SELF, Elemental, ZocDoc, Yoga Journal, Everyday Health, My Fitness Pal, and Centennial Media. Follow her on Twitter.