Written by Lauren Helm, M.A.
Setting Intentions for the New Year & Using ACT to Guide the Way
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As you set out into the new year, you may have already identified and begun practicing taking steps towards your New Year’s resolutions. The road towards various forms of transformation or self-betterment can often be long and arduous, and you may face challenging moments as well as rewarding ones. In order to set yourself up for success, consider learning about and applying some of these tips based on an interpretation of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) principles. Hopefully, this will help you to continue to evolve in the direction of your choosing this year!
Set intentions that are rooted in your values
Make sure to give yourself enough time to adequately reflect on what is truly important to you. Too often, we may choose to “better” ourselves in ways that may be important to others, but not ourselves. This is a great time to discover your authentic, deeply held desires for yourself, if you have not already done so. What we value speaks to who we want to be in this life, and what gives our lives the greatest sense of richness and meaning. Our values can range various domains, including health, family, friendships, career, spirituality, etc. Clarify for yourself WHY you have selected a certain New Year’s resolution, and determine if it is truly aligned with your authentic values. When we set an intention to fulfill a values-driven goal, we are more likely to be intrinsically motivated to achieve it than if the goal we have set is solely reliant upon the approval of others (or any other reason we think that we “should” be doing something).
Create a SMART values-guided plan of action
Once you’ve selected your New Year’s resolutions or intentions, set yourself up for success by creating an action plan. Dr. Russ Harris created a worksheet that is geared towards helping individuals create a specific plan that is based in their values. You can find the SMART goal worksheet here. SMART stands for specific, meaningful, adaptive, realistic, and time-bound. In other words, you may select a New Year’s resolution that is specific (define exactly what it is that you hope to achieve, and the specific steps that you believe may need to be carried out in order to get there), meaningful (make sure that the resolution is based on something you genuinely care about), adaptive (is setting this goal truly supportive for you and will it improve your life?), and time-bound (be specific and identify the times and dates that you plan to complete certain steps that move you closer to your goal). These are guidelines (not rules) that may support you in successfully working towards your resolutions throughout the year.
Make contact with the present moment
Practice mindfulness of both pleasant and unpleasant aspects of what you are working towards (the FULL experience of the moment), instead of struggling or resisting the discomfort that you may encounter (say, if you were working towards living healthfully by exercising, you may practice mindfulness of the sensations experienced during exercise). Our experience of working towards our desired goal may be dramatically shifted by whether we adopt a mindful, open attitude, or a judgmental, resistant attitude. Excessively trying to “omit” the uncomfortable aspects of your journey will be unlikely to work, can waste your time and energy, and possibly sour your chances to stretch yourself or rise beyond what you may have previously believed you could not do.
Check in with yourself as the year progresses. Adopt a nonjudgmental, objective viewpoint as you observe whether your current actions are in alignment with your original resolutions or intentions. Allow this information to inform any modifications that may be made to the SMART plan that you created. Have you learned that certain strategies help you keep on track, and others don’t? Does just the action-plan need to be revised, or have your priorities shifted over time, and thus your original intentions need to be re-committed to or revised?
We are ever-evolving human beings in an ever-changing world. We cannot always predict or control what will happen in the future. Even if you have created a plan using the SMART guidelines, planning for your future can either work for you or against you, depending on how you relate to your plan. When we hold too tightly or rigidly to an idea of how “things are supposed to go,” the plan begins to unravel us, instead of supporting us. Be honest with yourself when this happens (without judging yourself), and practice flexibility.
Practice acceptance AND commitment
When we feel blocked or unable to achieve the outcome we desire, there may be suffering. Given that unexpected life events may happen that interfere with the plan you have in place to reach your goals, loosening our fixation or attachment to only one way of achieving your values-based resolutions may be helpful. ACT suggests that we can have lives full of meaning, even when we are thrown off course or encounter pain or difficulty. The key is committing to your values, and letting them guide you as you reset your course as needed. Just because you do not achieve a specific outcome (or goal) in a specific way does not mean that you aren’t able to live a valued, meaningful life. We can live in alignment with our values in so many different ways in different situations. Though it can be tough to not obtain a specific outcome that we hoped for, with a flexible, accepting attitude, we can discover another way to embody our values. We may often find that it can be equally as satisfying, even if it doesn’t look like we originally had imagined it.
From the team at CSAM, we hope you have a Happy New Year!
If you'd like to speak with a professional at the Center for Stress and Anxiety Management for help with anxiety, please click here.
SMART goal worksheet: http://www.thehappinesstrap.com/upimages/Goal_Setting_Worksheet.pdf
Hayes, S. C., Strosahl, K. D., & Wilson, K. G. (2011). Acceptance and commitment therapy: The process and practice of mindful change. Guilford Press.