After a grueling 2020, 2021 offers a fresh start.

After a grueling 2020, 2021 offers a fresh start.

Was your only goal for 2020 to make it to 2021? Well, the New Year is finally here. And although the pandemic continues to wear on in our region and beyond, the promise of global COVID-19 vaccine access inspires hope for a brighter future. From where everything stands right now, 2021 could be both a pandemic and post-pandemic year.

So how is all of this impacting our New Year’s resolutions? Have priorities shifted because of the pandemic, or will our goals be similar to those set in years before? We’ll talk with two local psychologists on how we can approach goal-setting in a realistic and doable way. And, how we can use science-backed strategies to make the most of 2021.

Produced by Inés Rénique


  • Dr. Jelena Kecmanovic Director, Arlington/D.C. Behavioral Therapy Institute; Adjunct Professor of Psychology, Georgetown University
  • Dr. Neda Gould Director, Johns Hopkins' Mindfulness Program; Associate Director, Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center Anxiety Disorders Clinic; Assistant Professor, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine


  • 12:00:03

    KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5, welcome. Later in the broadcast Kojo For Kids welcomes Dancer Ashley Murphy-Wilson of the Washington Ballet. But first we're four days into the New Year and many of us are already struggling with our resolutions for 2021, but it's not too late to get back on track and perhaps a little psychology can help us change our habits this year. Joining us to discuss is Dr. Jelena Kecmanovic, the Director of the Arlington/D.C. Behavioral Therapy Institute. She's also an Adjunct Professor of Psychology at Georgetown University. Jelena, thank you very much for joining us.

  • 12:00:42

    DR. JELENA KECMANOVICThank you for having me on your show. It's a pleasure and honor to be here.

  • 12:00:46

    NNAMDIJelena, as a therapist, who regularly sees patients what's your sense of people's New Year's resolutions this year?

  • 12:00:53

    KECMANOVICWell, it's been interesting to observe that. I think it's slightly different than previous years. We have, you know, a percentage of people about a third, I would say, that I observed who are still setting pretty traditional resolutions, you know, exercise more, lose weight, eat better, be more on a budget, you know, and that kind of stuff. So there's a sense of hope while in the middle of everything we're dealing with if I can just get better in these ways, then maybe, you know, I'll feel better about myself and I'll have more sense of control over my life and I will feel better.

  • 12:01:33

    KECMANOVICThen another third I would say are still setting up resolutions, but they're a little different. They might be something along the lines of learning a new skill. I want to learn how to code, for example, or cook a new kind of cuisine this year. And some of the people who are trying to learn a new skill also thinking about, you know, this pandemic and post-pandemic market and being more marketable, and being able to get jobs and better jobs.

  • 12:02:00

    KECMANOVICAnd then this, you know, same group of people who are kind of setting up different resolutions are thinking definitely as you mentioned in the introduction, you know, what have I missed so much in 2020? And the big ones, of course, more time with family, seeing family and travel, and so a lot of people are resolving to do that once we can actually do that. We might have not put so much emphasis before, because it was given and we could always do it. But now it's a sense, okay, now I haven't been able to do it. I am definitely -- make this a priority. I'm going to spend more time with family and I'm going to travel.

  • 12:02:35

    KECMANOVICAnd about a third I've seen just say, you know what? We have enough to deal with. We are not setting any resolutions this year. Why don't just, you know, get through the day. And for this at least, you know, first part of 2021.

  • 12:02:49

    NNAMDIDid that surprise you that people are saying, No. We're already dealing with enough. We don't need to be trying to make any new resolutions?

  • 12:02:55

    KECMANOVICHonestly, not. I thought maybe it would be even bigger number of people, because, you know, it's already -- people are already struggling with -- a lot of surveys in the last six months have shown that depression is up, anxiety, anger, interpersonal conflict and we've definitely been seeing that in our practice. And so, you know, people are seeking comfort. They need sort of refuge from all the negative stuff that we are bombarded with that we are dealing with every day and so putting something else on your plate seems just daunting to some people.

  • 12:03:28

    NNAMDIAlso joining us is Dr. Neda Gould, who directs the Mindfulness Program at Johns Hopkins and is the Associate Director of the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center Anxiety Disorders Clinic. She's also an Assistant Professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Neda, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:03:45

    DR. NEDA GOULDThank you so much for having me, Kojo.

  • 12:03:49

    NNAMDIYou say you're seeing New Year's resolutions focused more on mental health and general wellness this time around. Can you talk about what you're hearing?

  • 12:03:57

    GOULDYeah, I think that Dr. Kecmanovic kind of summarized it well, but I am seeing individuals, because of the increase in depression, anxiety, substance use, interpersonal discord focus more on their mental wellbeing. And so whether that's to reduce anxiety or reduce symptoms of depression, decrease substance use or increase meditation and positive practices. I have seen more focus on those aspects.

  • 12:04:31

    NNAMDICan you tell us more about the Mindfulness Program you run at Johns Hopkins and what exactly does mindfulness entail?

  • 12:04:38

    GOULDSure. So mindfulness is basically non-judgmental present moment awareness. So when we're mindful we're bringing attention to internal experiences whether it's bodily sensations and thoughts as well as external experiences that are happening in the moment and with an element of acceptance and curiosity, and so the program I run focuses partly on patients.

  • 12:05:07

    GOULDSo individuals who come from different areas, referral sources and want to learn how to use mindful either for psychiatric or medical issues, because there's a lot of evidence that mindfulness can be helpful for a wide range of psychiatric and medical problems, and then I also run courses for faculty and staff that address stress and burnout and both of those components of the program are aimed at overall kind of learning this skill to apply to daily life.

  • 12:05:44

    NNAMDIDr. Kecmanovic, in 2021, we often heard from friends and social media that really our only goal for the year should be quoting here, "to survive the pandemic and to make it to 2021." But now that we've made it, how can we balance just getting by day to day with looking ahead and setting goals for ourselves?

  • 12:06:08

    KECMANOVICYes. That's a very good question. And I think, you know, first thing to remember is that's going to be very personal and individualized for each of us. You know, we have people, who have much less time than before. Mostly it's people who had caretakers of either elderly or the children who are doing online learning, and they're really, really struggling. And they seemingly don't have an ounce of time or energy to add something again to their plate. And actually the American Psychological Association did the survey and showed that parents of smaller, like school age and younger, children are most stressed out. And so, if you're in that position, again, trying to do something else, might be too much.

  • 12:06:57

    KECMANOVICHowever there are also relatively big number of people who have a bit more of time, because they are working from home than not having the two hour commute or three hour commute, you know, and getting ready and so forth, so there is space to add something to it. So you have to really think about it in the context of your life.

  • 12:07:17

    KECMANOVICBut no matter where you are, I would say the main recommendation, in general and even more so this year, is to be really, really gradual and to be really realistic and to start with one thing, trying to change one thing at a time. You know, the biggest mistake I will say that I see is people trying to change five things at the same time. I'm going to start walking twice a day and I'm going to start eating better meaning like no refined sugars or whatever it is. And I'm going to learn the coding. Turns out you won't do any of it if you had tried to pile up things. We just -- we don't operate that way. Change is hard. Behavioral change is hard. So pick one thing at a time. I would say at least try to stick with it for a month until you get a little bit of a habit going.

  • 12:08:08

    KECMANOVICAnd then you will see that actually changing one behavior, can -- it does sort of radiate. And by changing that one behavior and focusing on changing one behavior, you will see change in some others. And then you can kind of start the next one and so forth. And do it very, very gradually. If you have been really sedentary during the pandemic and so forth and really, you know, not feeling well physically and mentally and exhausted all the time and you vow that you're going to start walking, you know, 10 minutes in the morning is huge for a first week. You know, start really small.

  • 12:08:45

    KECMANOVICAnd as I always say, you know, if you set up 10 minutes every morning and then you end up, you're already walking for 10 minutes and then you feel, Oh, I feel a little better. I'm going to walk for another five minutes. That's great. If you overshoot your goal, that's great, because you're gonna feel good about yourself. You're going to build that sense of self-efficacy and you're going to be more likely to continue. Rather than setting up, you know, half an hour morning and evening kind of goal, and you know, failing during that first week getting discouraged.

  • 12:09:11

    KECMANOVICAnd then, you know, doing what we call in psychology -- psychologists are rarely funny but sometimes they have good names for things. And we have this term, what the hell effect. You start after three days, I haven't done, you know, twice a day half an hour walk. Well, what the hell. I'm not good for this. Let me give up, kind of thing, you know?

  • 12:09:35

    NNAMDIYeah, I know that effect very well. Dr. Gould, you've said that the problem with New Year's resolutions is that they often involved major behavior changes that we expect to make overnight. Tell us more on why this is an issue and how we can make our goals, well, more attainable.

  • 12:09:52

    GOULDYeah. So I do think that's the issue is that we go to bed and we wake up the next morning and expect ourselves to be somebody totally different, like, I'm going to not eat any sweets or I'm going to stop smoking tomorrow and that's just not achievable, because it is hard to change some of these long standing patterns of behavior. So what does tend to work is to break goals up into -- goals that are concrete and manageable. And we're much more likely to be able to achieve them. There's an acronym that as psychologist, we often use called make your goals smart. So we make them specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time limited. So if your goal is, for example, to exercise more, yes doing as Dr. Kecmanovic mentioned doing the 10 minutes for the month of January each day or three times a week.

  • 12:10:53

    GOULDBut be very specific. So I'm going to exercise at this hour for this period of time and Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Write it down. Maybe share it with a buddy and anticipate the challenges that may arise. And then finally, be compassionate to yourself and expect yourself to have slip ups.

  • 12:11:14

    NNAMDIWe're going to be taking a short break, but when we come back, we'll be continuing this conversation about keeping our New Year's resolutions in 2021. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:11:43

    NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about New Year's resolutions for the year 2021 with Dr. Jelena Kecmanovic, Director of the Arlington/D.C. Behavioral Therapy Institute and an Adjunct Professor of Psychology at Georgetown University, and Dr. Neda Gould who directs Mindfulness Program at Johns Hopkins and is the Associate Director of the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center Anxiety Disorders Clinic. She's also an Assistant Professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Let's go immediately to the phones and talk with Coco in Washington D.C. Coco, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:12:16

    COCOHey, everyone. Happy New Year. Thanks for taking my call.

  • 12:12:18

    NNAMDIHappy New Year.

  • 12:12:19

    COCOI am loving this conversation. I'm a health and a life coach. So this is totally my jam. So thank you all so much. I wanted to share -- because this is something piggybacking off of habits, as a coach this is a time where everybody like you all said wants to set these big goals. But what I really try to encourage my clients to do is to start with what are good habits they already have. Is it that 10 minute walk? Is it, you know, your lemon water routine in the morning? Like what is an established habit you already have and how can you piggyback.

  • 12:12:54

    COCOSo, for example, is someone decides to take a 30 minute walk near their house and they don't take water with them. Maybe their piggybacking habit is when they come home they have their favorite bottle of water that they drink down as soon as they get home. So it's like almost this pleasure, this thing that you're looking forward to to add on to the established habit that is already working for you. So it encourages people to build and build. And really feel success literally every time they do something that they just are naturally doing.

  • 12:13:24

    NNAMDIInteresting idea. Thank you very much for sharing it, Coco.

  • 12:13:27

    COCOHappy New Year, you all.

  • 12:13:28

    NNAMDIHappy New Year to you. Care to comment on that, Jelena?

  • 12:13:32

    KECMANOVICSure. You know, piggybacking is a very well established procedure -- suggesting and strategy we use when establishing habits. And it, you know, falls under this kind of big group of suggestions that basically say that there's no such thing as having really good will power. You know, we all have friends or met people in the family who seem to have amazing will power. Those are the people who wake up at five o'clock in the morning and they are exercising, running even in the 32 degree weather. And you think, Oh my God, I could never be like that. Personally I could never, I think wake up at five o'clock.

  • 12:14:13

    KECMANOVICYou know, and what research shows interestingly is that, yes, there are some individual differences in this, you know, sort of mythical will power muscle if you want to call it. However, what research finds is that people who seem to have the highest will power actually setup the environment in such ways that they need very little will power.

  • 12:14:37

    KECMANOVICSo they're just very kind of clever and mindful to in advance setup stuff in the environment, contingencies in the environment, things that are going to remind them to do the right thing, you know, things that are going to make them easier for them to do the right thing, things that are going to be easier for them to avoid doing the bad thing. So kind of suggestions of not buying an ice cream, just not having ice cream in the fridge and cutting your really good fruit and putting it in little batches in the refrigerator. It actually works. It makes a difference because when you feel that craving in the afternoon when we all need a little pick up, you go and you're going to reach for ice cream, oh, there's no ice cream.

  • 12:15:17

    KECMANOVICAnd now it's pandemic and you don't want to go to the grocery store. I mean, you know, it's a hassle anyway. But now even bigger hassle. So you're going to go for the next best thing, which is your chopped up fruit. So you just made it really easy for yourself to do the right thing. So piggybacking is the same idea.

  • 12:15:35

    KECMANOVICDoctors use the piggybacking suggestion all the time because they'll say to remember to take your pills take them with your morning coffee. And so we can just piggyback on that. And say, well, when you have your morning coffee and you take your pills just prepare a little bit for the healthy lunch afterwards and put it in the fridge. So when lunch time comes and you're just exhausted and you just need that break, then again, you open the fridge and it's right there, right?

  • 12:16:03


  • 12:16:04

    KECMANOVICSo actually have a foresight and think about all the possible obstacles that can get in the way. And we know that envisioning good behavior and good outcomes, but also imagining, identifying obstacles and making a plan of how to overcome those obstacles is the winning formula.

  • 12:16:28

    NNAMDIGot it. Nada Gould, Elizabeth from D.C. asks, "I once heard that counterintuitively not sharing your resolutions or goals with others actually makes you more likely to keep them; is this true?"

  • 12:16:42

    GOULDYeah, so, you know, it's a good question. Is it like birthday wishes that if you share them they don't come true? I think that more research is pointing to acknowledging them and having either a buddy system or even sharing it live on Facebook or some other social media that you're more likely to be held accountable for them. I think this is one reason why groups can be helpful. For example, meditation groups and programs, because you see that other people are engaging and you feel that you're held accountable for them. But I think to the caller's point it's individual. Some people have that self-motivation and don't need that. But if you're feeling like you're struggling and you really do need that extra push to accomplish the goals, I think that the buddy system or acknowledging your goals with others is an important thing to do.

  • 12:17:37

    NNAMDIHere now is Reggie in Frederick, Maryland. Reggie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:17:43

    REGGIEHey, Kojo. I just wanted to bring to light, I'm listening to your guests and a lot of this stuff is tailored towards people who have -- how do they bring conversations -- swing it around to people who don't have -- you know, minority groups, people of color, who are maybe have environmental restrictions in their area or have other restrictions in the area where they aren't able to purchase certain things. They're aren't able to get on the internet. They aren't able to do these walks, because of environmental restrictions and things. How do they tailor the conversation towards that group?

  • 12:18:24

    NNAMDIDr. Kecmanovic.

  • 12:18:26

    KECMANOVICYes. So as I mentioned it is really specific to each of our situations, thinking where you're starting from, and thinking what's the smallest thing I can do in the next day, in the next week, in the next month that is possible? Given my situation, what is still possible for me? Really asking that question. You know, given all these very objective and real restrictions as you said or hardships, is there anything that is still possible for me? And again if that walk is just a short walk and not some, you know, fancy exercise gym or so forth, if there's no access to fresh food, well, you know, being creative and maybe setting up a system with relatives if possible and so forth.

  • 12:19:23

    KECMANOVICAnd maybe during the pandemic especially as Kojo mentioned, people I think are looking to be able to help others. And setting yourself up with a community or a network where the people could occasionally bring some healthy food or so forth. So, you know, just starting really from where you are and what's the smallest step you can do in those circumstances.

  • 12:19:47

    KECMANOVICYou know, I myself am an immigrant, from Bosnia originally. I actually lived through Bosnian war, and so I remember being, you know, restricted and not leaving home because there are snipers around and so forth. And so, you know, it's very hard. It's very hard in that situation. And it's very easy to become very helpless and hopeless. Hopeless because you feel you have no control over anything in your life. And if that's the case then you lose hope for the future and we call that hopelessness and that leads very easily into depression. Research shows that.

  • 12:20:22

    KECMANOVICSo asking yourself again, what is it that I have a little control over today? And for us, when we were in Sarajevo during the war it was okay, there's this window of two or three hours when usually it's calm. I'm going to get out of the house and do my chores this and this and this. And really make sure that I get the most for the buck during those couple hours and come back. So find where you are and go from there.

  • 12:20:51

    NNAMDIAnd in about the minute we have left, Dr. Gould, Doug tweets, "Loved your resolution segment. Nine years ago I pursued a 30 on the 30 list leading up to my 30th birthday. This year, I set succinct and meaningful goals surrounding my physical, mental and financial health, but like many listeners I'm taking 2021 step by step." Is that what you're finding too, Neda Gould?

  • 12:21:15

    GOULDAbsolutely. I think that breaking them down into what some people call micro resolutions and incorporating an element of flexibility and self-compassion when you're not able to meet them is precisely the way to go.

  • 12:21:30

    NNAMDIOkay. Thank you so much Dr. Neda Gould and Dr. Jelena Kecmanovic for joining us. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll be welcoming Dancer Ashley Murphy-Wilson of the Washington Ballet on Kojo for Kids. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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