New Year, New Me?

6 minute read

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Photo by Philip Ackermann from Pexels

With 2021 having made its very welcome appearance last week, millions of people have likely committed to their own New Year’s resolution(s). The usual suspects are bound to have been uttered by at least a few thousand: lose weight, eat healthier, work out more, quit smoking, learn a new hobby, etc. Other more ambitious resolutions like starting a new side hustle or starting to invest are fairly commonplace as well.

But chances are, we’ve all done this dance before. As a new year approaches, the prospect of new beginnings motivates us. We reflect on all that we’ve done over the previous year and resolve to do better. To be better. And then the new year hits us and we hit the ground running. We stick to our new commitments for a day and then a week. We feel pretty good about ourselves. After about two or three weeks, the resistance and distractions set in. We may start to feel overwhelmed or start to procrastinate. We may start to blame others or even ourselves for our inability to stick to our goals. And then we revert back to our old ways and habits.

Granted, it doesn’t always pan out like that, but chances are you’ve experienced a failed resolution at least once in your life. All this isn’t to say that making New Year’s resolutions is a bad thing. For some, it may be an extension of their goal-setting habits, and for others a fun motivator. But the danger comes when we set unrealistic expectations, commit to changes that are too drastic, or try to change too much too quickly.

Enter toxic productivity.

As the name suggests, toxic productivity is the unhealthy obsession with productivity—workaholism, if you will. Being a so-called purveyor of productivity techniques, this is an issue that I’ve grappled with myself. How do I reconcile my desire to be as productive and efficient as possible with my tendency to overwhelm myself?

For example, at the beginning of COVID I was motivated to learn as many new things as I could, so I stocked up on a bunch of Udemy courses and promised myself that I wouldn’t squander all of the new free time I had. In my mind, if I didn’t “make the most of my time”, I would spiral into a depression. Just like the New Year’s resolution trap above, those new habits eventually fizzled out. Not only did the depression still hit me, but I also felt worse for letting it happen. The feelings of inadequacy and failure were intensified for not following through with my goals, and all of that mixed in with the uncertainty of the world and the isolation from my friends and family. It wasn’t a super great place to be.

Going back to the topic at hand, you can probably see the parallels. If your New Year’s resolution is to work out five days a week and you fall off that wagon a few weeks in, you’ll probably feel pretty shitty too. But just because that goal is ambitious doesn’t mean it’s unachievable. It might just mean you have to work your way up to it.

So how do we ensure the goals and resolutions we set are achievable? How do we actually follow through with them? How do we avoid burnout and toxic productivity?

A large part of the issue is that we idealize our future selves. We’re unwilling our unable to adopt a new habit or change in the present, so we outsource that responsibility to our future selves. In other words, we procrastinate. We’re a lot more willing to commit to something that involves work or effort if it doesn’t have to be done today. That seems to be a reason some people turn those commitments into New Year’s resolutions; the new year becomes synonymous with not today.

You don’t need to wait for the new year to make a change. The best way to build a habit is to just start doing it. Unless there is some practical reason you can’t start a habit, you may be setting yourself up for failure if you say things like “I’ll quit smoking in the New Year.” Why not start today? What’s holding you back?

As powerful as our brains can be, they don’t always function with our best interests in mind. For instance, they’re susceptible to the influence or dysfunction of neurotransmitters, which may lead to depression or anxiety. They’re also very good at coming up with excuses which may lead to indulging in unhealthy activities or resisting healthy ones. These issues often make it hard to be objective and separate ourselves from our feelings or break certain habits.

I’m no role-model in goal-setting by any means. I still make empty promises to myself. I still quit things before I finish them. I still let my emotions influence my thought patterns and behaviour from time to time. It’s unlikely that I’ll ever get to a point where I can be completely objective and realize my full physical and mental potential as a member of the human species. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t try.

Practicing meditation and mindfulness hasn’t solved all of my problems, but it has helped me become more aware of my personal tendencies—many of which aren’t unique to me—and some useful strategies in combatting both toxic productivity and procrastination.

  • When it comes to goal-setting, timeliness is important. Like I said before, you don’t have to wait for Monday or for the new year to start a new habit. But it’s also important to not be too hasty. I can’t remember how many times I’ve tried to start a new habit on a whim only to realize that I didn’t really want to do it.

  • Be mindful of your intention. We’re a lot more successful in our goal-setting when we attach some intrinsic meaning to our goals. Let’s say you want to start kickboxing. Ask yourself why you want to start kickboxing. Is it because you just think kickboxing is badass? Is it because you want to lose weight? If it’s the latter, ask yourself why you want to lose weight. Is it because you want to decrease your risk of heart disease? Is it because you want to fit into an old outfit? There’s not necessarily a right or wrong answer, but it’s important to be aware of the fact that the more superficial the motivation behind a goal is, the less likely you are to stick to it.

  • Get your shit done in the morning if possible. I’m convinced that the only reason I’ve been meditating for as long as I have is because I often do it right after I wake up. On the days that I do it in the afternoon or evening, there’s a lot more resistance. Don’t give your brain the opportunity to come up with excuses. Get it out of the way early so you don’t have to worry about it. That sense of accomplishment will also carry over into the rest of your day.

  • Be kind to yourself and recognize your small achievements. If you struggled with your workout, don’t beat yourself up. You showed up, and that’s what’s important. Even though I meditate seven days a week, I’m lucky if I have two or three days where my mind doesn’t wander. It can be frustrating, but I try to be proud of the fact that I continue to practice.

  • Be prepared to put in the work. By default we’re drawn to pleasurable experiences. The feeling of progress is one such pleasure. Depending on your goal, you may expect to progress at a certain rate and then become discouraged when that expectation isn’t met. In those moments, remind yourself of your intention and appreciate the fact that you’re trying. Remember, you showed up!

  • Remember that goals can change. If you feel yourself becoming overwhelmed or recognize that you’re not making any progress, there’s no reason you can’t scale back your goal—even if it’s just temporarily. Ideally, start small and work your way up while being mindful of your current needs and capacity. In the morning, we may be functioning at 80% capacity, but by the evening we could be at a 60%. Don’t push yourself too hard if you’re not in the right space for it.