It’s been a year. Twelve months into the pandemic, we’re anxious, burnt out, and dealing with the just-can’t-focus effects of pandemic brain. In other words, it’s more important than ever to pay attention to your mental health. “Our brains went through a major shift that we were not prepared for as humans,” says Dr. LaNail Plummer, founder of Onyx Therapy Group. “Everything shifted and our brain shifted as well — the sensory elements of our brain like the limbic system have been on overload.”
Setting mental health goals — the same way you’d commit to getting to bed earlier, or taking more breaks for movement during the day — can help you get your head back on track. “Goals allow us to create a vision and a plan backwards, to design who we want to be and to find the steps and the tools and the resources to get there,” says Dr. Plummer.
If that was an important part of wellbeing before the pandemic, it’s absolutely vital now. “Mental health goals help people strengthen their mental capacities which create a positive trickle-down effect in all other areas of their life,” says Perzan K. Irani, a mental health counselor at New Method Wellness. So, in the wake of 2020, “setting mental health goals this spring can drastically help us regain some of the control we lost over the past year,” Irani says.
We asked the experts for their insight into setting productive mental health goals that can help you reach a whole new state of mind this spring — and got their tips on how to actually accomplish them.
How to set a mental health goal
Pro tip: start small. “Start with one simple mental health goal and stick to it for 30 days without trying to change anything else in your life,” says Irani. “People usually make too many changes at once and get overwhelmed and eventually give up.”
But what that change looks like is totally up to you. You might choose to focus on addressing newly developed depressive symptoms, improving your coping skills, addressing generational trauma, or simply creating more peace in your out-of-control schedule. “A productive mental health goal can either be wanting less of something negative or wanting more of something positive,” says Irani. “For instance, you can have a goal of wanting less anxiety on a day-to-day basis or a goal of wanting more laughter in your life or improved focus.”
“The most common 2021 mental health goal I am seeing in my practice right now is people wanting to improve their ability to focus,” Irani continues. “The reason for this is being that people are inundated with notifications, messages, emails, etc., and getting so distracted that they do not get anything done and feel guilty about it.”
The most important thing when setting mental health goals is to make them actionable, says Irani. “For example, if your goal were to have more laughter in your life, you could set an action step to eat lunch at least twice a week with colleagues” — over Zoom counts too — “and engage in jovial conversation instead of eating at your desk alone,” he explains. “This way you can measure and hold yourself accountable for the action steps that would lead to accomplishing your goals.”
Dr. Plummer swears by the SMART goal method, which stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely. “It is important to put a timeline on there so we can look at our progress and determine how we want to reevaluate,” she says. “A therapist can be an accountability partner towards these measurable treatment goals… or we can hold ourselves accountable. In the process of that, we also get the opportunity to reflect on what has been successful and what hasn’t.”
Here’s a few expert-recommended examples of mental health goals and the actionable plans that will help you achieve them:
GOAL: I want to improve my ability to focus.
ACTION: I’ll put my phone on airplane mode and set a timer to read, increasing the time by 5 minutes each day.
GOAL: I want to be more present in my day-to-day life so I can improve my relationships by listening more attentively.
ACTION: I’ll commit to five minutes of meditation each morning to help improve my mindfulness.
GOAL: I want to address the symptoms of anxiety that have gotten out of control over the past year.
ACTION: I’ll work with a therapist to create a treatment plan.
GOAL: I want to be more resilient in the face of bad news.
ACTION: I’ll list five things I’m grateful for each day.
How to actually accomplish your goals
When it comes to turning your goals into reality, the experts break them down into two factors: internal motivation and external support and accountability.
On the internal side, “the best strategy I have found to stick to mental health goals I learned from Jerry Seinfeld. Get a calendar where you can see every day of the month and the year mapped out on one page. Then each day that you stick to your behavior of meditating for 5 or 10 minutes or whatever the action step is for your mental health goal, put an X on that day on the calendar,” Irani explains. “At some point, you will get a streak going of several days in a row and you will have a chain of X’s. At that point, your only goal becomes do not break the chain.” (Lots of health-focused smartphone apps use the same strategy.)
But you can’t do everything on your own — therapists are important accountability partners. “Community is everything, honey,” says Dr. Plummer. Surrounding yourself with people who support the changes you want to make, including a pro or two, is huge. “The challenge is how do you define who is in your community?”, Dr. Plummer says. “In terms of setting goals, we want a community and people in our community who also want their mental health to be strong. They want to be able to give to us, and they want us to be able to give to them as well.”