Mental Health Spotlight: Turning Dental Hygienists’ New Year’s Resolutions into Attainable Goals

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Fresh starts are one of life’s gifts that I get a bit giddy over. The new year is a fresh start that leaves me feeling hopeful, motivated, and energized. I feel excited to set new goals, create or reinforce habits, and manifest the next year as “MY YEAR” to live my best life!

Are you feeling it, too? I hope so! A fresh start brings hope and something to look forward to. I look ahead at my calendar and see a sea of possibilities. It feels as if the land to travel forth is open and vast, and I am the commander in charge of filling it however I want.

As a devoted health nut, kettlebell, and barbell coach, I decided about 10 years ago to stop setting New Year’s “resolutions” and turn my focus to yearlong goals. I started to feel weary of resolutions as they seemed hard to keep. I put too much pressure on myself to be perfect out of the gate, and I would quickly lose momentum.

Mostly, I believe it was because my resolutions were too lofty, undefined, and generalized. I would say, “This year, I will get in the shape of my life.” OK, that is a fine goal, but I did not define how or when I would get there. Also, what the heck does “the shape of my life” even mean? I might say, “I am going to work out hard and eat super clean.” Again, that is great, but I was setting myself up for failure as soon as the words came out of my mouth because these are general statements with no defining destination or plan to get there.

Setting Realistic Goals

As dental professionals, we are primed for burnout. Hectic schedules, demanding interpersonal interactions, and musculoskeletal contortions in the op can leave us empty and worn out. Self-care is an essential part of our lives as clinicians. Our New Year’s goals are often focused on getting ourselves in a healthier place to overcome burnout. The most common New Year’s goals that hygienists set are eating better, exercising more, losing weight, drinking more water, and developing better boundaries.

As you look to the new year, what have you been considering for yourself? What goals would you like to reach this year? Do you need to set yourself up for better success in some parts of your life?

I had the honor of interviewing Marley Carnes, a registered dietitian and owner of Marley Nutrition and Fitness, to discuss setting realistic goals for the new year. Marley works with people from all walks of life. As an avid CrossFitter, she has the privilege of attracting clients who are serious about fitness and nutrition and individuals who are just beginning their fitness journey.

Marley, a specialist in coaching behavior change and goal setting, identifies a common obstacle for her clients: setting unattainable goals and neglecting to construct a proper roadmap. Clients often contact Marley Fitness and Nutrition feeling exhausted and frustrated, unsure why they cannot reach their goals. Marley prefers to “meet them where they are” in client meetings and identify crucial missing steps.

She emphasizes that “long-term success begins with minor changes ‒ putting one foot in front of the other.” According to her, an all-or-nothing mentality leads to burnout. Marley advises against the “restart on Monday” approach, advocating instead for small steps that align with daily responsibilities, reducing being overwhelmed, and fostering a sense of accomplishment.1

Marley underscores the importance of understanding and regularly visualizing one’s “why” for success. She states, “The number one reason our clients are successful is that they know and regularly visualize their why. When faced with tough decisions, recalling one’s why becomes crucial.” Marley encourages clients to ask, write down, visualize, and contemplate their feelings and aspirations for the next one, three, six, and 12 months.

Knowing the why, setting specific goals, and taking action is key. Marley asserts, “Motivation follows your actions,” emphasizing that understanding your why is the key to consistency on the health journey and lasting success in all endeavors.1 Examples of clients’ motivation and why include being able to play with their children and grandchildren, reaching a personal goal such as a triathlon or half marathon, living long enough to watch their family grow, or simply feeling good and being mobile and healthy as they age.

Habit Stacking

James Clear, a world-renowned goal-setting guru and author of the book Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones, offers numerous goal-setting strategies that most people could reasonably implement. One of my favorite strategies he recommends is “habit stacking.”

Habit stacking is the act of combining a new behavior with a current one. For example, if I watch a particular show every night, I can stack a healthy habit on top of this activity. My habit stack becomes that I only watch the show in the evening while walking on the treadmill. I am taking the time to watch the show anyway. Why not combine it with something that will help me reach a goal?

Let’s say I am feeling burned out with hygiene, and one of my goals is to reduce my stress, but I do not know where to start. Perhaps meditating for five minutes twice daily will set me on the right path and create a sense of intention for my day. A way I can stack this new habit is instead of scrolling social media while my coffee is brewing, I will meditate in the kitchen in front of my coffee pot until the brew is complete. I do not need a fancy meditation room or 30-minute blocks of time. I use time already taken up by something else and stack a new behavior on top.

Keep in mind this is slightly different than what is considered multitasking. Multitasking will spread us thin and water down our attention and focus. Examples of multitasking are trying to send an email while on a phone call or scrolling social media while your partner tells you about their day. Our brains do not allow us to do both at the same time. One task will win our cognitive energy, leaving the other neglected. A habit stack allows us to combine two complementary things without robbing Peter to pay Paul.2

Five Tips to Reach Attainable Goals

Below are five tips to reach New Year’s goals in an attainable way.

1) Be specific. Define what you will do, how you will get there, and how long it will take. Try to be as specific as possible.

For example, instead of saying that I will get in the shape of my life this year, my reframing may sound like this: My goal is to be stronger than last year. I will reach this goal by weight training consistently four times a week. I will try to workout on Mondays, Tuesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. I will follow the Functional Bodybuilding program. I will begin January 2nd and test my personal best lifts on deadlift, bench press, and squat at the end of each quarter. Each quarter, I would like each lift to increase by 15%.

This approach defines daily, weekly, and quarterly actions that are attainable.

2) Make your goals realistic. Starting a business from scratch and planning to be a millionaire by the end of the year may be quite ambitious. Not reaching the goal may make you want to give up. Setting a goal to reduce your clinical hours by making an extra $2,000 monthly from your side gig may be within reach.

Planning to exercise vigorously every day right out of the gate is a surefire way to fall flat. It is unrealistic for most people because life gets in the way, or we get burned out too quickly. I imagine most of us can find two to four days a week to exercise, even if it is walking during our lunch break. Whatever the goal, make it feel attainable and not a superhero feat.

3) Write it down. If you do not write it down, it most likely will not happen. Get a journal or document your goals in the front of your calendar or on a readily accessible document on your computer. Print it and hang it someplace you will see it daily. Revisit it often to assess your progress.

4) Seek out accountability. Who in your life can you lean on and collaborate with for accountability? Perhaps your partner, best friend, coworker, or a professional such as a personal trainer, dietitian, or mental health therapist. Create a plan with your accountability partner for check-ins to keep you on track.

5) Have grace with yourself. The profession of dental hygiene tends to attract perfectionists. I am admittedly a recovering perfectionist. As old habits are ingrained, I expect the recovery process to last a lifetime. Give yourself grace when you do not perform perfectly towards your goal for the day or even the week.

Even though my goal is to strength train four times a week, I can often only make it to two or three workouts. I gently remind myself that those two lifting sessions made me stronger than if I had done nothing. I start fresh the next week and try to lay down any guilt or feelings of failure.

Mentally praise yourself for the positive and avoid punishing yourself for perceived shortcomings. If you fall off the wagon, you can always pick up where you left off without shame. This is part of being human in our modern-day world.

In Closing

As hygienists, we have a lot on our plates. Entering the year with good intentions, only to fade out, is typical for most people. Though my examples are specific to health, insert whatever brings you passion and joy. Honor yourself and your loved ones by taking the time to think deeply about your goals, be specific, write them down, and most of all, do it with love and grace. After all, you are worth the time, energy, and attention. As you look out onto this new year’s big, broad horizon, claim what you want and live your best life!

Before you leave, check out the Today’s RDH self-study CE courses. All courses are peer-reviewed and non-sponsored to focus solely on high-quality education. Click here now.

Listen to the Today’s RDH Dental Hygiene Podcast Below:


  1. Carnes, M. Personal Interview, 2023.
  2. Clear, J. (2018). Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones. Avery.
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Kandice Swarthout, RDH, LPC
Kandice Swarthout, RDH, LPC, is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Registered Dental Hygienist. She is a full-time dental hygiene educator in Texas, where she teaches community dentistry and research. Kandice is the owner of Inspired Education & Wellness, where she is a speaker, writer, and private practice therapist. Her unique blend of clinical expertise in both dental hygiene and mental health equips her to assist fellow healthcare professionals in recognizing not only their patients’ needs but also their own, fostering deeper connections with the healthcare community. Kandice’s dedication extends to her role as an approved provider for Texas Health and Human Services, specializing in human trafficking training for healthcare providers. Additionally, Kandice brings a touch of fun and camaraderie to the dental community as the co-owner of Muffins & Mimosas Dental Study Club. She offers engaging, in-person dental continuing education that creates a warm and welcoming environment for friends and colleagues to come together to learn. Read her articles in Today’s RDH column, Mental Health Spotlight. Contact Kandice through her website at or on social media @The Counselor Hygienist.