The New Year’s holiday is upon us, a time when many begin to consider goals and resolutions. And while such aspirations are good, far too many of us become obsessed with achieving them. Whether striving to obtain material status—promotions, more money, big houses, expensive cars and jewelry, luxury vacation destinations like the photos on Instagram—or re-centering and taking care of ourselves by doing activities such as starting a yoga class, a new exercise routine, incorporating meditation or breathing exercises into our day, or reconnecting with the Earth through gardening, the excitement of a new year can spark panic and lead us to burnout before we even begin.
Burnout—the stress on our minds and bodies caused by overwork—has become epidemic. According to the American Psychological Association, chronic stress is a public health crisis, up there with anxiety and depression. A study by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America found that more than 75% of people find burnout-related symptoms harm their relationships and home life. And a recent Forbes article claims that more than 60% of work absenteeism is attributed to psychological stress and stress-related burnout.
How then can we focus on New Year’s goals but still allow ourselves some grace? Let’s start with these three simple acts:
Remind yourself of past and present achievements.
Our focus on what we have yet to achieve can prevent us from enjoying what we already have. Right now I’m studying English in Los Angeles. My boyfriend dotes on me. I have a Disney Pass and easy beach access. All this was my dream as a high schooler in a drab Colorado suburb. Yet now, rather than enjoying the beach every chance I get, I spend my time fixated on my flawless vision of life after college where I’m married to my love, living in a second-floor Portland apartment, wearing my great grandmother’s ring. We’ll have high windows, a claw-foot tub and a good kitchen for him to make risotto. I’ll make a living as a freelancer, and we’ll have a pet hedgehog named Walt.
This constant Sisyphean striving is the stuff of burnout.
The New Year is an opportunity to break this cycle—a good time to set new goals, but an even better time for grateful reflection. Sure we can list our resolutions for 2020, but we can also list the blessings of 2019—I had my first good Valentine’s Day, saw a humpback whale and published a piece in YES! Reflecting on how far we’ve come lends us momentum to pursue what’s next. A policy of gratitude shifts our laser-beam focus from where we want to be, to where we are right now.
Celebrate the small steps.
Another way to avoid burnout is to celebrate incremental progress. Every long journey is a series of small steps.
Someday I want to quit my barista job and write full time. It might take me decades to publish my first novel, but every blog post is a small step in that direction worth commemorating. I’m still working on the first chapter of my novel, but the day this article is published in YES! I’m heading to M&M’s Donuts for a celebratory blueberry-glazed.
Appreciate the journey.
Slowing down for gratitude can feel like a frivolous use of our time. However, Harvard studies show that intentional thankfulness makes us happier—and happiness is the reason for goals in the first place. Start by journaling about the things you love or sharing a 2019-Top-Ten List with friends. This will help pave the way for a happier New Year in 2020—ultimately preventing the burnout that comes when we forget to be grateful for where we are and what we have.
This New Year, we can choose to change our approach to goal setting and resolutions and prevent burnout. Let’s take initiative by valuing the process of reaching our goals. As we plan and dream about what comes next in this coming new year, taking these intentional steps will help us not only have a better chance of reaching our goals, but of finding greater happiness along the way.
Natasha Zartman is a soon-to-be graduate of Biola University’s English writing program and the Torrey Honors Institute.