How the pandemic is thwarting New Year's resolutions — and why a psychologist says you should make them anyway

Erin Donnelly
·7 min read
The pandemic has thrown many New Year's resolutions off-course. (Photo: Getty Images stock photo)
The pandemic has thrown many New Year's resolutions off-course. (Photo: Getty Images stock photo)

Eat more vegetables. Drink less booze. Pick up a hobby. Cut back on screen time. Take up Pilates. Travel. The dawn of a new year always ushers in a flood of resolutions set by people determined to tap into an optimized version of themselves. But with the coronavirus pandemic throwing countless plans off-course and denying everyone so many comforts already, those who might typically kick off Jan. 1 with a lengthy to-do list are cutting themselves some slack.

Some say their thwarted 2020 resolutions have made setting new goals futile until the pandemic has ended. STEM toy expert Mark Coster tells Yahoo Life he’d promised himself to spend more “kid-free time” with his wife last year — only to find the family “crammed” under one roof 24/7 thanks to lockdown. This year will also see personal trainer and entrepreneur Tyler Read forgoing his annual pledge to limit his screen time, even though the pandemic has made him more attached to his smartphone than ever. And Tina Willis, a serious injury and wrongful death lawyer in Florida, is likewise sitting this year out despite traditionally setting both personal and career goals at the start of the new year, citing the impact the pandemic has had on her travel plans and workload.

“The pandemic has definitely changed everything!” she tells Yahoo Life. “My work calls have declined significantly, and I don't think there is much that I can do to change that fact in the near future. So this year I can't imagine any setting any resolutions that might have any real meaning for me, other than waiting and hoping, like everyone else, that the end of the pandemic will bring life and the economy back to normal. But that’s just a prayer, not a resolution, since I have zero control over anything pandemic-related ... We are just in wait-and-see mode, staying at home.”

Though Dry January and Veganuary are in full swing, others may be loath to cut out treats (say, a glass of wine to make the end of yet another workday spent at home, a take-out burger to support a local restaurant, a new series to binge-watch with their cooped-up kids) that are helping them get through this difficult time. Similarly, committing to a 30-day workout challenge or diet may feel like too much pressure right now. There’s also the hobby fatigue of having spent the last several months taking up new projects (knitting, baking banana bread, virtual workouts and so on) in an effort to fill the time.

Meanwhile, others are postponing their resolutions in favor of post-pandemic bucket lists rife with activities that can’t fully be enjoyed right now (see: traveling, having a wedding, signing up for a fun class that isn’t over Zoom).

John Norcross, author of Changeology: 5 Steps to Realizing Your Goals and Resolutions, distinguished professor and chair of psychology at the University of Scranton and a board-certified clinical psychologist, refers to the latter phenomenon as the “once this is over” category of resolutions.

“‘My resolutions will begin in June, when enough of the vaccines are out to get something done,’” people have said to Norcross, he tells Yahoo Life. He adds that this “carpe diem attitude” isn’t uncommon after a life-changing event, such as a health scare or the death of a loved one, when someone might feel it’s “time to reprioritize and get things done,” whether that means booking a post-pandemic cruise, reconnecting with an old friend, starting a family or changing careers in order to pursue a new passion.

“I have lots of friends saying, ‘This just reminds me I need to grab life while I can,’” he says, adding that “we’re calling the pandemic the global Rorschach test” as it reveals what people value most: travel, family, freedom, health, etcetera.

While Norcross caveats that “people don’t need to add something else to their to-do lists,” he says there is value in setting up resolutions to work on now, rather than putting off for the distant, still-uncertain future. That’s especially true as the high of the holidays wears off and people struggle to combat cabin fever, seasonal affective disorder and what he calls the “big blah of January” in the midst of a “longer big blah” —the pandemic.

“People are looking for something to occupy themselves,” he says. “Resolutions revitalize you. You have a new goal ... it’s something to strive for.”

In other words, setting a new goal or recommitting to a past resolution or project — like the sourdough starter bandwagon you hopped on in the early days of lockdown — could prove to be a positive distraction as the pandemic stretches on. The pandemic itself might even inspire a new goal, he explains.

“In general, resolutions track on trends — they’re just a simple function of human behavior,” Norcross says. “So, for example, when we’re in a recession, we immediately see a rise in the number of financial resolutions, not surprisingly. In the middle of a pandemic, it’s literally changing everything, including resolutions. Some of the resolutions are specific, pandemic-related — that is, using a mask, creating a smaller bubble, insisting on social distancing, going out less frequently. Others are compensatory matters, like going out, or at least doing something.”

Resolutions are more likely to be accomplished if they’re given a positive spin, rather than seen as one more sacrifice in a year of sacrifice, he adds. If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that health is precious, and swapping fried food for veggies, exercising more, quitting smoking or curbing alcohol intake may feel like “denial,” but Norcross calls them “life-enhancing, maybe life-saving, behaviors.”

“[Health professionals] don’t think about enhancing life as denial,” Norcross says. “But to other people, they feel like denial ... It’s part of the defensive propensity of all humans to make it feel like denial rather than a gift. I know it’s cliche, but every few moments you give yourself of exercise, you’re giving yourself, on average, additional time to live. So I know they’re frequently framed as ‘you’re denying yourself the good life’ — we think it’s exactly the opposite. Which is why it is important to frame resolutions whenever possible as positive. Instead of “I’m not having dessert,’ it’s, ‘I’m insisting on fresher, better food for my body.’”

But resolutions needn’t be health-related, or individualistic. They could involve a family challenge to, for example, spend more time outdoors or host a weekly game night. They could involve volunteering or paying it forward for others within your community. They could involve giving ourselves more grace or have more empathy as the pandemic wears on.

“That in itself can be a resolution — to cut myself more slack, to be less perfectionist, to be more accepting, less judgmental,” Norcross says.

Again, cutting yourself more slack may mean scrapping resolutions once and for all — an impulse that Norcross says is “understandable.” Still, with so many people finding themselves at home and with more free time than usual, he calls this a prime “opportunity” to push for progress of some sort.

“Even in the midst of the pandemic, the human quest for self-improvement continues,” he explains.

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.

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