10 ways to get your 2021 off to the right start

College principal Jo Maher draws on her performance psychology background to share tips for starting the year positively
4th January 2021, 3:53pm
Jo Maher


10 ways to get your 2021 off to the right start

How Deep Breathing Can Boost Student Wellbeing

The push and pull between the thing we really want and how we achieve it can be explained in a number of ways, but the most impactful one I have seen was in a psychology lecture when I was an undergraduate at Loughborough University. In a motivational interviewing session, our professor put two images side by side. Image one was of a "six-pack" and image two was of a "sick pack"… the difference being a toned abdomen and cans of lager. 

The immediate distraction of an instant reward can often distract our brain and impact our motivation for the thing that we tell ourselves we really want.

Applied neuroscience psychologist Dr Helena Boschi recently described, in a session for college leaders, how 40 per cent of our behaviour is habitual. However, our brains do not distinguish between good and bad habits. So, starting 2021 with habit-forming behaviours designed to influence long-term outcomes is essential to avoid the new year's resolution trap. 

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Drawing from my performance psychology background, here are some practical insights to get your 2021 off to the start that you deserve.

Balancing wellbeing and achieving your goals

  1. Social media management - When we see negative content online, it triggers our "fight, flight and freeze" response and sends our stress hormones racing around our nervous system. Spot the repeat offenders and unfollow them.
  2. Nutrition for happiness - I have actively avoided the term "diet" because that is a personal choice and often not habit-forming. Serotonin can affect mood, and food containing the essential amino acid tryptophan can help to produce more serotonin. Salmon, eggs, spinach, turkey and dark chocolate are a good place to start. 
  3. Digital day management - Take the guilt out of prioritising your wellbeing first. As Association of Colleges president Sally Dicketts often reminds us, there is a reason why on a plane, you are told to put your own oxygen mask on first. "Zoom" fatigue is real, so try to balance breaks in between lessons or meetings by completing tasks that take worries away or by going for a walk.
  4. Spending time in the natural environment - Researchers at the University of Minnesota have outlined how many studies have produced strong evidence that even three to five minutes of contact with nature can significantly reduce stress and have a complex impact on emotions, reducing anger and fear and increasing pleasant feelings. Consider the time you spend outside, greenery in your office or home office, and interactions with art.
  5. Sleep - Sleep is essential and having a pre-sleep routine can help to enhance it. Limiting device screen time, writing a "to do" list with actions to commit to, having a hot bath and using lavender are all ways you can try to fit around your routine to enhance sleep quality.
  6. Articulate your feelings - Find a trusted person with whom you can get things off your chest in a safe space, but make sure you both do it equally to keep balance in the relationship.
  7. Process goals - What are the actions you need to engage in to achieve your aim? The best process goals are technical and focused. Ensure that you write them down.
  8. Breathe - Counting to three whilst you breath in and to one on the way out, repeating three times, is a good way to just distract your brain and improve oxygen flow.
  9. Certainty - This helps to turn off the part of brain designed to keep us safe, so even in the midst of all of the guidance we are receiving, find a few tangibles that you can control and focus on those.
  10. Reward yourself - Our brain triggers positively with rewards even if they are the smallest things, so treat yourself (and no that does not always mean with wine) or pay it forward.

Jo Maher is principal and chief executive of Loughborough College


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