6 Expert Tips for Making a New Year’s Resolution During a Pandemic


To help recalibrate expectations for pandemic New Year's resolutions we asked top life, work and retirement coaches for their action points. Photo: xavierarnau via Getty Images

New York-based comedian Robyn Schall nailed 2020 when she unearthed her resolutions list from the New Year’s Eve before the pandemic hit. Her heartwarming (its funny, cuz its true) reading aloud of her before-time plans went viral (see video below). Among other lofty goals for the year, she had planned to lose weight, make more money, travel more and be more social. Ha, indeed.



Poignantly, Schall had also vowed to spend more time with her grandmother (and then she lost two grandmothers that same horrible year). She was all of us, laughing through tears at what we thought 2020 would be.

Schall, however, is also a symbol of good coming out of bad: the stand-up comic, who had been unemployed since March 2020, had been worried about paying her rent before she accidentally launched her very COVID-era career, becoming our relatable Instagram BFF sharing the tribulations and small joys of life in lockdown.

It’s natural, then, that we’d all feel trepidation around setting goals and resolutions in the pandemic era. In a good year, says Toronto-based life and career coach Steffi Black, “half the time our New Year’s resolutions don’t work out because we put too much on our plate. Real change takes time.” She adds that, “in this pandemic, we have to learn to sit in our stuff, live with our feelings, in order to move through it and let it go before we can move on.”

That means we have to lean into the baby steps, no matter our age or stage in life.  Black says that the turmoil caused by the pandemic affects the sympathetic nervous system, which directs the body’s rapid involuntary response to dangerous or stressful situations.

“By resisting loss and changes, we shut down the learning centres of our brain that we need to be open to growth,” she explains.

To help recalibrate expectations and break things down, we asked Black and other top life, work and retirement coaches how to set meaningful resolutions to drive ourselves forward after this limbo year. Here are their action points:


1. Give Yourself a Pat on the Back


First, acknowledge you did great just getting through these pandemic times. Begin by integrating what we’ve learned about ourselves and our revised priorities this year, says the team at Psych Company, a Toronto-based (and now online) practice combining customized life coaching and therapy services. Krista Roesler, life coach and registered psychotherapist, and Mark Brion, managing partner of PsychCompany.com, noted that “Many of us have lost something big” during the pandemic, be it at work or on the personal front, or in terms of time with loved ones.

They added that we’ve also dealt with loneliness and the pressure of being cooped up with the same people. To reframe all that requires turning the problem on its head to see the brighter side: “Many of us have been thrust into having a newfound respect for the importance of resilience, self-care, and flexibility and openness to pivot and accept ambiguity.

“We need to accept how capable we are at handling tough times so that we have the confidence to take new actions and make positive decisions rather than just wallowing or staying stuck.”

Hiring a coach, they say, can help hold you accountable, as they can ask the hard questions from an objective place.

“A coach can also help you deal with the usual things that get in the way (for example, procrastination, lack of motivation, etc.). They can also help to identify situations requiring therapy — fear of failure, harmful thinking patterns, fear of success, confidence, self-esteem.”


2. SWOT to Pivot


While there are many useful work templates, frameworks and activities that coaches can help get you get started with, Roesler and Brion at Psych Company cite coaching tools and concepts that people can access for themselves — such as determining a list of their unique strengths, weaknesses and values.

These can be used to “help make choices that will lead to greater happiness or a new version of happiness for themselves in the post pandemic world.” One of these is an accessible self-evaluation method called SWOT analysis.

“SWOT analysis gets you to list your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats onto a simple four-quadrant ‘Tic-Tac-Toe’ matrix. This is a quick and practical way to help you visualize and prioritize your next actions and steps.”

Basically, you make a list of these attributes and challenges and map them out on a page, looking at them visually — ideally with a coach to interpret impartially — to help you see areas that need addressing.

“COVID has disrupted and is getting us to redefine what it means to be successful,” the pair says. “The pandemic has derailed careers, long range career plans and even partnerships … It is in many ways also ‘allowing’ and giving us permission to think ‘small’ for a change and focus much more on wellbeing and even pursuing a happier version of our previous lives by simplifying and detouring or exiting from the rat-race. There are no Joneses to keep up with anymore.”


3. Separate Your Core Values From Your Acquired Values


Coach Steffi Black notes that we can make a virtue of the ways our daily lives changed due to the pandemic.

“Identify the simple rituals in your day — sipping hot chocolate, looking at the stars, a foot massage.”

These are grounding rituals, which regulate the central nervous system, and offer opportunities to be present in our own lives. It is only when we are present, she says, that we can start to define what is important to us and make changes.

Black breaks down goals into those that reflect “core values versus acquired values.” She cites the work of life coach Senka Holzer, who has done research on how to separate externally acquired values — picked up via our family and peers, culture or even generation — from more personal (core) values. Examples of core values are inner peace, compassion, adventure or challenge. This is about thinking of those core feelings as the ultimate destination, rather than job titles or target weights or material goods.


4. Write A Letter To Your Future Self


“Going to the past is never helpful,” says Black. “Let go of that critical self-talk and heed, instead, your empowering voice.”

Black tells the parable of a senior monk and junior monk crossing a river. “A beautiful young woman asked for help to get to the other side. The young monk paused, because they had taken vows never to touch a woman.” The older monk duly picks up the woman and carries her to the other side. The younger monk is aghast. “The older monk says, ‘Brother, I set her down on the other side of the river, why are you still carrying her?’”

The act of writing a letter to yourself, says Black, “allows you to think about what you would like to feel like. It allows you to envision your perfect day, and how that makes you feel. It allows you to practice a reset, with calm equanimity and never [self] judgment.”


5. More Carrots, Fewer Sticks


Wherever you are on the spectrum of planning towards retirement, the pandemic likely affected your thinking on transitions. Jennifer Rovet is a retirement coach at RetireReadyCanada.com who acknowledges the challenges.

“Newly retired people, or who had planned to retire before or during the pandemic, have really been thrown for a loop,” she says. “Retirement is all about reinvention. It can be an extremely exciting time for many, but without a strong plan in place, the entire notion of retirement can fall apart, leaving some feeling disappointed and frustrated.”

Retirement, she adds, should be thought of as a transition, not a destination. “It is important for people to focus on what they are retiring with — and to — as opposed to what they feel they are leaving behind.”

She says now is the time to cut yourself some slack and stop beating yourself up. Instead, “Give yourself small rewards at different stages of reaching your goals. This will help you stay on track and keep focused. Be kind to yourself and reward yourself with a small treat, like getting your nails done or buying the tool you have had your heart set on.”

Goal setting is the easy part of the process, she says.

“Staying on track and following through is what people seem to struggle with.”

Little treats to look forward to help make any life change about the journey more than the destination.


6. Above All, Be S.M.A.R.T.


Rovet recommends setting SMART goals for both the big changes and little ones in life. SMART is an anagram for:

Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Time-bound.

“If you simply say, for example, ‘I want to live a healthier life.’ What exactly does that mean? Eating more fruits and vegetables? Exercising? Losing a few pounds? Without going into specific details and breaking it down (using the SMART method), chances are you won’t follow through.”


Mental Health Check-In: How Cognitive Behavioural Therapy Can Help Us Through a COVID Christmas