By Katherine Ponte and Izzy Goncalves
As we begin to settle into 2023, many of us are thinking about New Year’s resolutions. Making resolutions can positively impact mental health, especially for those of us living with mental illness — but pursuing them is not easy.
For those of us living with mental health conditions, a lack of hope and optimism might deter us from making New Year’s resolutions at all. For those of us who do set resolutions, we might quit early. Our day-to-day struggles often make daily goals hard to achieve, causing further anxiety. If we don’t achieve set goals, we may feel like failures, which only lowers self-esteem and worsens depression.
However, when done correctly, setting goals can give us a sense of meaning and purpose. And achieving goals, even if only partially, can boost self-esteem, confidence, personal growth and a sense of accomplishment.
So, for this new year, we should all think more carefully about how to set ourselves up for success.
Areas of your life that need improvement will, of course, differ from person to person. Remember that you don’t want to overwhelm yourself by trying to do too much at once. You can identify several potential lifestyle and behavioral changes but work on one or two at a time.
To better motivate yourself to stick to your goals, unpack why you want to pursue them. Some may relate to treatment, emotions, self-care and relationships. Treatment-related goals can include fully committing to treatment, having hope and engaging in activities that can enhance treatment outcomes. When examining where you’d like to see change, make sure that the desire comes from you, rather than society’s expectations or others’ opinions.
Being optimistic is not being naïve. When setting goals, you must recognize your limitations and set realistic expectations. But this doesn’t come at the expense of optimism; you can be realistic while also reframing negative self-talk into positive self-talk to help overcome self-doubt.
With this in mind, you have a chance to challenge yourself in a healthy and doable way. You should prepare yourself to work steadily and persistently — and remind yourself that you can do this.
If you’re setting multiple goals, prioritize each goal based on importance to you, need and timeline. Once you have established an order, you’ll want to break each one down into smaller goals to make each task more manageable. Big goals can be overwhelming; but identifying and achieving small goals allows for short-term gains and boosted motivation.
Having a plan to pursue goals is extremely important. A popular goal setting tool is called S.M.A.R.T. goals. Here is what the acronym stands for and a few examples.
Specific: What do you wish to accomplish? Goals should consider its who, what, when, where, how and why.
Goal: I want to ruminate less.
Example: I will learn and practice mindfulness for 15 minutes a day.
Measurable: The goal is something that can be monitored for progress.
Goal: I need to spend more time with my caregiver.
Example: I will go for a 15-minute walk with my caregiver each night for a month.
Attainable: The goal cannot be too challenging.
Goal: I need to improve my diet.
Example: I will see a dietician for recommendations about a healthier diet
Relevant: The goal is appropriate and beneficial for the individual and their needs.
Goal: I need to sleep less to be more functional during the day.
Example: I will speak to my doctor about a medication adjustment.
Time-bound: A goal should have clear time limits that are realistic.
Goal: I would like to spend more time with my family.
Example: I will attend one family dinner this week.
If you’re living with serious mental illness (SMI) and taking certain medications, you can face particular obstacles when pursuing your goals. For example, you may be hindered by heavy sedation that makes motivation difficult. You should identify and address these obstacles (perhaps with a care provider). Your goals should remain flexible and adaptable; it’s ok to get off track and to rest as needed, but you must try to get back on track after a break.
Turning your goals into habits (whether daily, monthly, etc.) can make your self-improvement activities a routine. Once you establish a routine, you are more likely to achieve your goals.
Be organized and keep track of goals in a simple to-do list or a journal. You may also want to keep a list of goals accomplished nearby for motivation.
You should commit to achieving a goal and hold yourself accountable along the way. For example, you can make yourself accountable by asking a loved one to check in on your progress. It is important to recognize that goals may take a while to achieve and that setbacks are common. If you make a mistake, remember that every mistake can be a learning opportunity — and learning opportunities are critical to achieving your goals.
Don’t be afraid to seek out support. Supporters can help you achieve your goals with positive reinforcement, provide helpful feedback and offer you the resources you need.
Similarly, you shouldn’t shy away from rewarding your victories, big and small. This recognition can be an extremely important source of motivation.
Supporters can also use rewards to motivate their loved ones. According to behavioral economics, incentives (material and otherwise) can be used effectively to nudge people to make better health decisions. My spouse and I developed a mental health app called ForLikeGoals to help support partners pursue recovery-oriented goals using rewards to motivate healthy behaviors.
Setting, pursuing and achieving goals is critical to recovery. We should not delay the pursuit of recovery in the hopes that our symptoms will go away on their own. The pursuit of goals can enhance treatment outcomes and put each of us on the path to recovery. Achieving goals begins with hope and believing in yourself. You have what it takes to live your best life.
Katherine Ponte is happily living in recovery from severe bipolar I disorder. She’s the Founder of ForLikeMinds’ mental illness peer support community, ForLikeGoals, collaborative goal management, BipolarThriving: Recovery Coaching and Psych Ward Greeting Cards. Katherine is also a faculty member of the Yale University Program for Recovery and Community Health and has authored ForLikeMinds: Mental Illness Recovery Insights. She is on the NAMI-NYC Board.
Izzy Goncalves is an Advisor for ForLikeGoals. ForLikeGoals, a web app that helps people with mental illness and their supporters communicate and collaborate on recovery-oriented goals, using rewards based incentives, an evidenced based approach shown to promote healthy decisions, including medication compliance in severe mental illness and self-care. You can access the apps full benefits for free for three months by entering code first3free when prompted.
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