It’s hard to recall if there has ever been as much of a desire to turn the page from one calendar year to the next; 2020 has been a torture for many. Even those who didn’t suffer devastating losses, financial crises or serious health concerns probably faced daily life disruptions that felt at times unbearable.
And yet, as much as the New Year’s Eve countdown is embedded in our culture, it often falls short of providing the emotional and behavioral shift that we are so desperate for. And the 2020-to-2021 transition may set us up for even more acute disappointment, as the stressors that have been so unrelenting aren’t actually going anywhere come Jan. 1. Covid-19 will still be surging, vaccinations are still months out of reach for many Americans and the pandemic’s unique social disruptions will continue to align with colder weeks.
So, how do we not set ourselves up for the disappointment of a lifetime? Is there any way to salvage a mental reset, knowing that our world won’t make it particularly easy? This psychologist’s answer is a cautious “yes,” if you keep the following in mind.
Mind-set shifts are helped by tangible markers that go beyond a new date on the calendar. What might feel like a fun or satisfying way to commemorate the transition from angst to hope: A primal scream? Burning a list of your grievances? A written toast? Even getting a haircut (safely) or wearing a new, special piece of jewelry can give you a visual shortcut to remember that you are now turning the page.
Many of us have been more alone than we bargained for, while still others have lost any sense of personal space under lockdown with a full house. But no matter what your brand of interpersonal dissatisfaction, connecting with others for a meaningful and thoughtful moment about what you look forward to in the new year — from creating joint accountability toward a goal, to expressing hope and gratitude for the new year’s shift — will increase the emotional power of the transition.
Whatever you are hoping to change in the new year, whether a specific habit or your overall outlook, it will probably be helped with a daily mindful pause — no matter how small. Making it a consistent ritual will keep reconnecting you with the changes you want to make. Even just 30 seconds while you brush your teeth every morning to set an intention for the day makes it more likely that you will sustain the true reset you’re looking for.
Like the hardcore New Year’s exercise plan that flames out by February, being unrealistic is all too tempting, but ultimately sabotages us. There are 365 days in 2021, and, just like previous years, some will contain surprises, others will be exhausting, and still others will bring disappointment. Try to accept now that there is nothing that will apply universally to every day of this new year, and so a reset need not be perfect — nor should it be. If parts of 2021 have a distinctly 2020 vibe, that’s okay. Try to avoid absolutist expectations.
As our lives may have felt like they were closing in, the logistical questions of when things will go back to “normal” probably took on an outsized importance. But it’s bound to cause helplessness and frustration that these answers won’t magically appear as the calendar shifts to January. Zoom out instead. What larger values are important to you that you want to keep close? What overall priorities give your life a sense of meaning? A sense of something greater than the nuts and bolts of day-to-day routines can keep you going when daily life still feels stuck in the surreal netherworld of 2020.
Yeah, yeah, yeah — you know that life is about the journey rather than the destination. But it never quite sinks in. And that’s because so often when we want a reset, we want to become something or arrive somewhere, checking a box as finished. But that implies a before/after switch that just isn’t compatible, realistically, with human development. Focus instead on your continual growth this year, which allows for fluctuations and even setbacks (since they can bring insight). If, on the eve of 2022, you can look back and see a genuine effort that was sustained over time to be open to change and discovery, that is a far bigger success story than checking any given box as “completed.”