‘Making Psychologically Informed New Year’s Resolutions…’
08.01.2021: For my first blog of 2021 as the Lead for Psychologically Informed Environments (PIE) at the national youth homeless charity Centrepoint, I have been reflecting after a couple of weeks of welcome annual leave, on coming back to work in the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and all the challenges that this brings. In recent weeks, cases of coronavirus have been dramatically increasing resulting in a further national lockdown and a return for many of us parents to home schooling. Although it may be hard for me personally, and for many of the staff in our ‘support’ team(s) to continue to ‘stay at home’, I am always mindful of our amazing ‘frontline’ staff, who continue to put themselves at risk of contracting COVID-19 as they travel outside the home to keep our supported accommodation services open for vulnerable and otherwise homeless young people. Moreover, whilst we wait for the national roll-out of the vaccine, it can be easy (and completely normal) for us to feel low, anxious, frustrated and angry, that at the start of a new year we appear to be ‘stuck’ in this position again.
The start of a new year is traditionally a time to set ‘New Year Resolution(s)’, as well as plan for the year ahead, whether that be our summer holidays or social events with families and friends. Of course at the moment making any plans, whether personally or professionally, given how much they had to be cancelled or modified last year, can seem pointless. However, I would argue that having some focus for the year ahead, will be important to help our psychological well-being as we continue to cope with the impact of the COVID-19 global pandemic. Consequently, I have been spending some time this week working on our budget and functional strategy for the future. What I have realized however, and perhaps arguably my most significant learning from 2020, is that being ‘adaptable’ (and taking one day at a time) is going to be the ‘name of the game’ for 2021! But whilst we do not currently know what the future holds and in many senses it is also out of our direct control, it is still important that we set some (realistic) goals for 2021 for ourselves as well as encouraging and supporting our homeless young people to consider the same.
So what would make a new years’ resolution a psychologically informed one? Firstly, psychology research highlights that, unsurprisingly, most new year resolutions are not kept! For example, Norcross et al (2002) found that fewer than 10% of people kept their New Year’s resolutions for even a few months. However, the good news is that even making a resolution means you are more than 10 times likely to keep it; if you don’t even try to make a change then you definitely won’t succeed! (Norcross et al, 2002). In addition, certain times of the year or ‘landmarks’ such as a New Year, can actually be helpful in giving us a boast to make a ‘fresh start’ (Dai et al, 2014). This is just a relevant for us as staff as for the homeless young people we may work with, in order that we can all #changethestory.
Secondly, the problem remains that many new year resolutions are focused on significant lifestyle changes (e.g. losing weight, go to the gym or doing more exercise, giving up something like cigarettes or alcohol, saving money) that have often become routine and habitual, and unless these are significantly problematic (e.g. for health reasons), making any behavioural change is very difficult. Often we do not stick to our resolutions because of our ‘false hope syndrome’ (Polivy & Herman, 2002), which is essentially our unrealistic expectations about the likely speed, ease and consequences of changing our behaviour.
Therefore, the most important aspect of any resolution we make, whether at New Year or otherwise, is that we need to think about what is realistic to change especially right now as we are all coping with a global pandemic. For example, I know I need to quit smoking, but I also know that this is not realistic when I am stuck at home and juggling multiple stressful roles (e.g. teacher, psychologist, friend, daughter, wife, housekeeper etc.)! Perhaps it is therefore more realistic for me to try and ‘cut down’ my smoking this year and use nicotine replacement products rather than smoke tobacco whenever possible. Moreover, our resolutions need to be specific, time focused, measureable and achievable rather than ambiguous; in other words a SMART goal. Perhaps right now, ‘joining a gym to get fit’ is not possible, but taking a daily 15-minute walk around the local area is. Alternatively, maybe our goal might be to lose a certain amount of weight to fit back in our work clothes (!) rather than to vaguely ‘lose weight!’
Having a SMART goal allows you to do the next thing that helps — making a ‘plan’, which will increase our chance of success (Hochli et al, 2020). Granted, right now planning is more difficult, so our plans need to be realistic within the current COVID-19 restrictions. Nevertheless, planning allows us to consider what small steps we can make towards reaching our bigger goal (e.g. losing 1lb a week by reducing chocolate and cake!) and most importantly, allows us to see our progress. Psychologists would then argue that it is important that we reward ourselves for each step achieved in our plan, because this then increases our motivation for further change and to ‘keep going’ (Hochli et al, 2020). If we do not have a plan, especially one that consider barriers, obstacles or even failures and how we might address or deal with them, then it is much more likely that we will give up on our resolutions or goals. It is also easier to commit to an action and succeed at it if it fits with our wider values and beliefs (c.f. Acceptance & Commitment Therapy; ACT; Hayes, 2004) rather than being something completely ‘new’ or out of character, as this value-alignment increases our motivation. Moreover, it can be sometimes be easier to generate goals, if you start by thinking about what your values are, so when working with young people who may struggle to devise appropriate goals, reflecting instead on what they value can be a more helpful starting point.
Next, we need to limit our resolutions or goals for the year. Even in normal times, it is most helpful to pick just one (or two), which we can focus all our energies and effort on, and maybe a different goal than last year (which we probably did not achieve!). Often our energy can feel lower in the winter months with the dark nights, so having just one resolution can increase our chance of success rather than several (American Psychological Association, 2019) as it stops the change process from feeling too overwhelming or daunting, especially as establishing new behaviour patterns can take time and effort. Therefore, it is important to remember that change is a process and may take time (Lally et al, 2010) and so we need to regularly remind ourselves of what our resolutions are and more importantly, why we have made them, perhaps with a motivating visual statement somewhere prominent or an alarm reminder on our phone? Moreover, many of our (or the homeless young people we support) most unhealthy or undesirable habits may have taken years to develop, and perhaps are associated with previous experiences, emotions or trauma that affect the ongoing habit especially if that habit is self-medicating. Giving up the habit can expose these underlying emotions and therefore we need to consider how we will manage them. What else can we do, that is more adaptive, to cope instead? Who might we need to get support from to help us to do this?
Of course, getting support in many aspects of our lives is normal and important, so why would making changes be any different? Evidence shows that those who have an ‘accountability partner’ (someone who is aware of our plans and can prompt, support or hold us to account for them) increases our chance of successfully sticking to our resolution (Condliffe et al, 2017). Having support can also make our resolutions more fun, if we perhaps buddy up with another person with a similar resolution amongst our friends, family or colleagues (e.g. exercise). It can also help us to keep going rather than to give up, especially if we ‘lapse’, take a break, or a step back (which is of course highly likely and completely normal at some point and should be viewed as a ‘learning opportunity’ to do things differently next time rather than a disaster!).
Finally, as I write this blog and reflect on what might be my PIE resolutions for the year ahead, I am reminded that this is the second New Year that I have been at Centrepoint. Consequently, I have reviewed last year’s PIE blog (c.f. https://drhelenmiles.medium.com/2020-new-year-new-decade-and-pie-resolutions-7bb50912ec75) to see what PIE resolutions I set back in January 2020. This seems like a very different world from January 2021 due to COVID-19, which is somewhat reflected in the success (or not) that I have had in achieving last year’s PIE resolutions! Last year, I wanted to travel more and visit services across the different regions in the wider organisation, but unfortunately, I have barely left my local south-east London area this year. I have missed seeing colleagues face to face, and genuinely feel saddened that I have not been able to travel more this past year both professionally and personally. However, I was also quite realistic last year that embedding PIE across a national charity was a ‘journey’ that would take time. Perhaps I didn’t realize just how many detours this journey would take though! I also had plans to roll out face to face PIE Training across the organisation, which sadly has been curtailed significantly due to COVID-19 and to introduce monthly reflective practice sessions, which has been possible and hopefully appreciated by staff within the organisation. Finally, I resolved to increase the PIE Team capability, and I am delighted that we will now have a further four brilliant PIE Clinical Psychologists, either in the team or joining in the next few months, in order to improve our PIE offer across Centrepoint.
So how about 2021; what are my PIE resolutions for this year? On reflection, I think this year my key resolution is to be adaptable and flexible, and to encourage myself, the PIE Team and the wider organisation, to acknowledge even any small successes on our PIE journey. Rather than just any tangible ‘end goals’ being the focus, I have learnt this year that taking a psychologically informed approach in its broadest sense and being open to where the journey may take us, can sometimes lead to unexpected positive changes. Sometimes opportunities may present themselves, that I had not previously thought of, as a result of collaboration or discussion with others, and I would like us as a PIE team to be willing to ‘run with these’ and create positive change wherever we can within the wider system. I am also particularly looking forward to working with the PIE team (as well as colleagues from within the wider organisation or externally) to implement and develop our PIE offer in Centrepoint.
Consequently, I am resolving this year to try to be more kind to myself. This is key for all of us to do in order to be able to work towards our resolutions rather than give up, which is arguably never more important than currently as we all cope with an ongoing global pandemic and its consequences. Focusing on what we can do, when we can do it rather than worrying about what we cannot do right now, is much better for our psychological well-being. This also means remembering the importance of ‘self-care’ to avoid ‘burnout’ and stress. I was heartened immensely when researching this blog this week to come across some psychology research by Reinecke et al (2014) that ‘slobbing in front of the TV’ is as helpful for ‘self-care’ as formal relaxation in managing stress (c.f. https://digest.bps.org.uk/2014/09/16/forgive-yourself-for-relaxing-in-front-of-the-tv-and-the-couch-time-might-actually-do-you-some-good/), so settle down in front of that TV box set this evening guilt free! For those of us that work in the homeless (or any other ‘caring’) sector, our work can at times be challenging both emotionally and even physically, so I would argue that looking after ourselves has to be a top priority for a psychologically informed new year resolution…