ADVICE
New Year’s resolutions: from SMART to FUN

Mamta Gautam, MD, MBA, FRCPC, CPE, CCPE

The start of a new year always brings new hope. We take time to reflect on the past year, what we had hoped to do and how successful we were, and endeavour to do better. Many of us make New Year’s resolutions, setting specific goals that we hope to achieve in the coming year. Perhaps we start off with great enthusiasm and motivation. However, as we return to work after the holidays, we often get caught up in our usual responsibilities and behaviours. Despite our best intentions, our resolutions fall to the side, waiting until we have time and energy to attend to them. 

The first people to make New Year’s resolutions are said to be the ancient Babylonians, some 4000 years ago. During Akitu, their major 12-day religious festival, they would crown a new king or reaffirm their loyalty to the reigning king. They also made promises to their gods to pay their debts and return any objects they had borrowed, hopeful that the gods would bestow favour on them during the coming year if they followed through. These promises can be considered the forerunners of our New Year’s resolutions. 

Similar practices occurred in ancient Rome. About 46 BC, Julius Caesar set January 1 as the start of the new year. January was named for Janus, the two-faced god whom the Romans believed symbolically looked backward into the previous year and ahead into the future. Thus, they offered sacrifices to Janus, with promises of good conduct for the coming year. In some religions, the first day of the new year has become the traditional time to think about one’s past mistakes and resolve to do and be better in the future. 

Today, New Year’s resolutions are most often a secular practice. Instead of making promises to the gods, most people make resolutions only to themselves, focusing primarily on self-improvement. Recent research by Forbes Health1 found that, while 37% of the population sets goals, the average resolution lasts just 3.74 months. Only 8% of respondents tend to stick with their goals for one month, while 22% last two months, 22% last three months and 13% last four months. Physician leaders are similarly successful.

Over the years, colleagues have shared their own experiences with New Year’s resolutions with me. Last year, I received a meme that made me laugh out loud: “I can’t believe that it has been an entire year since I haven’t lost weight or become a better person.”  

Another colleague shared an Instagram post from Emily Ladau,2 author of Demystifying Disability and host of The Accessible Stall podcast, who thinks it’s about time that we rethink this whole idea of setting SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, timely) goals. “It’s time we acknowledge that given the state of everything, we could all benefit from being kinder to ourselves,” she wrote. “So, I’m not setting ‘SMART’ goals this year, despite all the ‘expert’ advice to the contrary. I know this won’t be everyone’s vibe, and that’s okay. But for me, this is the year for FUN goals.” Ladau outlined her new FUN strategy for goals:

  • Flexible — Life happens, things change, goals shift.
  • Uplifting — Bettering myself isn’t a punishment. It’s a process that should feel good, even when it’s challenging.
  • Numberless — Nothing will be radically different if I read 29 books this year instead of 30.

“I’m still going to be just as focused on progress and committed to social justice activism as I’ve always been,” she wrote. “But this year, I’m doing it in a way that takes off some of the pressure and actually serves me so that in turn, I may better serve others.”

At the start of another year, with all our responsibilities and increased risk of burnout, this mindset is one to consider adopting. Let’s set FUN goals. We need to acknowledge and free ourselves from external pressures and expectations. To help us develop and grow, let’s shift our focus from being perfect by societal (especially medical culture!) standards, and aim to discover and commit to what brings us the most joy and fulfillment in our life.

Here are seven tangible tips to start off the new year and maintain a positive and healthy outlook:

1. Take care of yourself first. This is important! There will always be other urgent things to do. Shift your mindset to recognize taking care of you is not a luxury; rather it is an investment. Remember that you are a role model for those you lead. Modeling healthy habits inspires others to do the same.

2. Identify at least five things that bring you joy and fulfillment — things you enjoy doing and help you care for yourself. Here are some examples to get you thinking: commit to regular exercise even (especially!) when things are busy; read a book for 20 minutes; plan coffee with a friend; do not check your emails on at least one day over the weekend; play tennis or shoot a bucket of balls at the golf range; plan and enjoy healthier meals; allow yourself to sleep for 7–8 hours at night; commit to undistracted time with family members; try a new sport or hobby.

3. Schedule them. Decide when these activities can fit into your schedule and put them in your calendar like any other event. Follow through, just like you would with an important meeting that you have scheduled.

4. Use the Tarzan rule. Just like Tarzan swings through the jungle, not letting go of one vine until he has the other in hand, do not end any of these activities until you determine when you will do it next. If something comes up and you have to cancel, reschedule. This will ensure momentum and enable all these positive activities to be maintained and continued throughout the year.

5. Add mindfulness moments to your day.Mindfulness is a way of thinking that enhances focus and clarity despite the pressures of a busy day. It involves being fully present in the moment, being non-judgemental, maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of your thoughts, emotions, body sensations, and surrounding environment with openness and curiosity. Some mindfulness courses teach us how to be mindful for 20–60 minutes. However, you can easily add brief mindful moments to your day. For example,

  • When you wake up: spend two minutes in your bed simply noticing your breath. As thoughts about the day pop into your mind, let them go and return to your breath.
  • While drinking your morning coffee, be mindful of its temperature, the smell of coffee, its taste in your mouth.
  • In your office, take a pause at your desk or in your car to boost your brain with a short mindfulness practice before you dive into activity. Close your eyes, relax, and sit upright. Place your full focus on your breathing.
  • Be mindful even when sitting, and while you are eating.
  • Walk to a meeting mindfully. Focus on the meeting, people, goals.
  • When your hand is on the doorknob of an examination room, stop to think of the patient you will be seeing.
  • Focus on each patient/person; actively listen to them in the present moment.
  • As you start your commute home, take a moment to be mindful of who awaits and what is ahead

6. Offer yourself self-compassion. Self-compassion involves giving yourself the same kindness and care that you would give to a good friend, especially when you are having a difficult time, fail, or notice something you don’t like about yourself. Here are the three components:

  • Self-kindness vs. self-judgement. Extend the same support and encouragement to yourself that you would to others, understand and embrace your failures instead of condemning them. 
  • Common humanity vs. isolation. Connecting to common humanity means understanding that pain and failure are part of the shared human experience; normalizing this makes us feel more connected to others.
  • Mindfulness vs. over-identification. Be aware of moment-to-moment experiences in a clear, balanced, non-judgemental manner. When stressed, do not get caught up in focusing on problem-solving. Instead, allow yourself to acknowledge the struggle and suffering, but not over-identify with feelings or react negatively.

7. Let go of the guilt. Guilt is the number one reason we don’t do the things that we know will be good for us. Here is my rule about guilt: if you are thinking of doing something you know will be good for you, but you feel guilty, it’s the very thing that you should do. So do it!

As leaders, it is our job to set a healthy culture and support the well-being of our team. By prioritizing our self-care, we can lead by example, encourage others to look after themselves, and remain engaged and effective. 

References

1.Davis S. New year’s resolutions statistics 2024. Forbes Health; Dec. 2023.  http://tinyurl.com/4xzmkmp7   

2.Mazzo L. This activist reframed 2022 goal setting in the most genius way. Shape: Mental Health; 21 Jan. 2022. http://tinyurl.com/42n2v2p9  

Author

Mamta Gautam, MD, MBA, FRCPC, CPE, CCPE, is an internationally renowned psychiatrist, consultant, certified coach, author, and speaker based in Ottawa, Canada. Her areas of expertise include physician well-being and physician leadership development. She is president and CEO of Peak MD and founder of The Raft, an accredited online continuing leadership course and community for women in medicine.

Correspondence to: mgautam@peakmd.ca

Part of this article was adapted and updated from one of Dr. Gautam’s blog posts on The Raft (January 2023), which is available only to Raft members.