Lynn Morley, of Belton, Mo. (pop. 21,730), decided it was time to make a big change in her life. By January of 2008, her dream job as a magazine editor had turned into a nightmare, with "a longer-than-desired commute, a lot of travel and a good deal of stress," she recalls. Work was taking so much time and energy that she didn't have much left for her husband and two young sons. So Morley, now 36, made an ambitious New Year's resolution: to find a less pressured, more family-friendly job.
The goal was daunting, but Morley broke down the task into manageable bites: making a list of potential employers, revamping her résumé and sending out inquiries. Five months later, she landed a job editing medical materials for a professional association–at less pay, but with more autonomy. "I got to choose my own schedule, and the commute doesn't involve highway travel," she says.
As Morley discovered, the best resolutions often can lead to life changes that help you stress less and smile more. And while a major life makeover like Morley's might at times be in order, much smaller changes can make a big difference, too. Here are some ways to make and keep resolutions that boost your mental outlook and emotional health.
You may ask if it's even worth the trouble to set goals for the new year. After all, so many of January's good intentions turn into July's distant memories. However, 46 percent of people who make New Year's resolutions remain on track six months later, according to research by John Norcross, a psychology professor at the University of Scranton (Pa.) Furthermore, those who make resolutions are 10 times more likely to reach their goals than people with identical aims and comparable motivation who don't make resolutions, he says.
To improve your odds of success, Norcross offers these suggestions:
- Set realistic, specific goals. It's fine to start with a broad objective–for example, to reduce stress. But then narrow down the goal to a particular action that can be measured, such as practicing yoga three times a week.
- Tell others what you plan to do. "Public commitments are generally more successful than private decisions," Norcross says. Ask family, friends and co-workers for their support. "The buddy system works!"
- Reward yourself for progress. When you reach daily or weekly targets, give yourself little treats, such as buying a sport or fashion magazine, downloading a favorite song or going out with friends.
- Be prepared for backsliding. "The vast majority of resolvers have at least one slip in January," says Norcross, noting that many go on to renew their resolutions. "In our research, 71 percent of successful resolvers said their first slip actually strengthened their efforts. It was a wake-up call."
Resolve to be happy
Eating smarter or exercising regularly are popular and worthwhile goals, but many other resolutions can lead to improved emotional well-being and personal relationships. So when choosing a New Year's resolution, consider other options to promote happiness and purpose:
- Resolution 1: Set aside alone time. At least once a week, schedule some personal time. Go on a picnic for one, take a solo stroll or simply soak in a bubble bath. Learning to enjoy your own company will improve your ability to connect with yourself and with others, says Nancy O'Reilly, a clinical psychologist, writer and speaker in Springfield, Mo.
- Resolution 2: Practice active relaxation. Make time every day to do something constructive that's also relaxing. Take a walk, cook for fun, play an instrument–the possibilities are endless–but don't just "veg out" on the couch. "Successful resolvers do the healthy opposite of the problem behavior," Norcross says. "So what's the healthy opposite of stress? It's called relaxation."
- Resolution 3: Stay in touch with loved ones. Create a calendar of relatives' and friends' birthdays, anniversaries and other special days. Then throughout the year, send cards or e-mail messages to acknowledge these days. "It's a great way to renew distant relationships or strengthen current ones," says LeslieBeth Wish, a licensed clinical social worker in Sarasota, Fla.
- Resolution 4: Volunteer for a cause. Commit an hour or two a week to doing unpaid work for an organization you believe in. In addition to helping others, volunteering can yield a sense of purpose and pride. Many people give time to an organization related to a personal challenge they've faced–for instance, a disease that has touched their family. Such involvement may help you gain a sense of mastery over that challenge, plus expand your network of relationships. "When you volunteer, you feel connected to other people," Wish says.