It was a tough year. Was 2021 a tougher year than 2020? Somehow, depending on your situations, it feels as though the odds are pretty good that it was. And whether it was tough for you or not, 2021 also felt like a particularly eventful year, where your life might have changed in one or more ways.
But no matter how your year went, just like last year, you might be feeling a lot of pressure to put the last twelve months behind you and start fresh on January 1st, 2022. After all, that idea of the “clean slate” is an eternally attractive concept.
And it’s a fairly natural instinct, but it’s one that carries some potential pitfalls with the way you interface with your world, if you’re not careful.
I used to get very severe and intense about the New Year. I would look back on the past year, and think about all the goals I had set for myself and not achieved, or had sad thoughts like, “you’re another year older and what do you have to show for it?”
Then, not learning my lesson, I would make uncompromising goals and promises to myself for the upcoming year. This year, I told myself, I was going to learn how to cook a new meal every week. And also read a book every month. And also get really good at pull-ups, but also complex plyometric exercises, because I had seen a YouTube video about them in late December.
And then, what would happen around January 18th or 19th? We all know how the story goes: I would fail at each and every one of those resolutions in quick succession, or sometimes spectacularly all at once.
Then would start a weird spiral of disappointment and relief and despair. Another failure, another attempt at being a better person, or aspiring to something greater. Where could I have possibly gone wrong? There are more than enough articles that have answers to those questions. Chief among the theories: unrealistic expectations and high levels of self pressure out of nowhere, ratcheting up from 0 to 100 overnight.
But I loved the cleanliness of that clean start more than almost any other concept in my life. I always did. I treated it like a sacred thing. The past year might as well not have happened, I told myself. This was me now.
This version of me got up at 6am before work and went for a run. Then he came back inside and made a smoothie that had more vegetables in it than fruit. It had kale in it but it somehow didn’t ruin the flavor. And he had good posture the whole time he was doing it, too.
That image, that dream, is a fun one to luxuriate in. It’s exciting to think about your potential and what you would do if you were able to take the pill from the movie Limitless.
But, though it might not feel like it, that kind of aspirational daydreaming is another sneaky form of expectation setting. You’re telling yourself “that adonis figure you’re picturing might actually be within your grasp.” And regardless of whether or not that might be true over a lifetime, the idea that it’s true over the course of two days is a little bit harder of a concept to sell.
The issue at hand seems to be with levels of severity, and collapsed timetables. This has to happen now, and within this year, and it can’t falter even once for the whole time. It would be great if those things were possible. But would it be so bad if they just slightly weren’t?
Focus on the good
One of the easiest traps to fall into when we are reflecting on our past is to paint with too wide a brush.
We should work to not cast the previous year or the coming year in big broad strokes of “bad” or “difficult” or “important.” They’re just numbers on a calendar. Chunks of time drawn out relatively arbitrarily. And, just like you did for the last 12 months, you’re gonna try your best to achieve your goals these next 12 months too. So trust yourself to do that. And take the pressure off.
We’ve been trying our best for what feels like forever. Maybe it’s time to stop being so hard on ourselves for a minute.
Even a year like 2020, which citizens and scholars alike will agree is maybe the closest we’ve gotten in a millennium to a quote “objectively bad year,” contained untold multitudes of good and bad, and ugly, as well as straight-down-the-middle boring medium. But we don’t need to expend any extra energy to focus on the bad. Our brains already do that for us. You likely know full well how good your brain is at doing that. So, cheesy as it may sound, focus only on the good. If for no other reason than to remind yourself that it’s there. And it always was.
Get excited, not expectant
January 1st rightly carries a lot of weight, because we’ve societally chosen to ascribe meaning to it. Our decision to block our lives into these neat 12 month chunks might have been slightly arbitrary and at times a bit unwieldy to deal with, but it’s what we chose, and it’s what we’ve got.
So it’s not a bad thing to look forward to “the next chunk” and think about what you’d like to happen and what might be fun or exciting or meaningful to you. But the danger is when you set hard expectations for things to happen a certain way, and then get disappointed when they fall any degree short. A whole host of modern human suffering can be chalked up to the fraught relationship between Expectation and Reality.
But the beauty of this life is all the different shapes it can take, and the degree to which those shapes and paths are out of your control. And that lack of control isn’t supposed to feel scary – it’s supposed to feel liberating. Be excited by the possibility of this year. Included in that possibility are your dreams coming true. You just have to be open to everything else at the same time.
Lighten the pressure
It doesn’t all have to be about the New Year. There are “reset points” available to you at many different points in the year, like your birthday, the first day of spring, or the first day of school, or any of the four financial quarters, or really, whatever day you choose to ascribe meaning to. Take the first day of the Chinese New Year if you like.
But my favorite stories of life-changing decisions are the ones where people woke up on a random Tuesday and just decided to do it. Give up drinking, or start flossing, or start writing their Great American Novel.
Because we know what goes along with assigning one date with the pressure of being The Fresh Start. First of all, for all the days leading up to that day, we have that natural instinct to go wild and try to fit in as much unhealthy behavior as we can before going cold turkey the day of. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve eaten sickening amounts of junk food on a Sunday because I was starting a “healthy food kick” the next day. But then I would abandon that diet on Wednesday. How much better off would I have been eating moderately for seven days in a row? The answer: nearly infinitely.
It’s a long life
I can remember, at any given stage of my life, attributing some kind of silly meaning to it with regards to the commonly-accepted timelines of our lives. Milestones that were supposed to be hit at any given time. Experiences that should have been had. 16. 18. 20. 21. 23 felt weird for some reason, and 25 felt like getting old? 30 terrifies me. I’m sure if you’re in that age group, 40 feels even scarier, and so on. I’m supposed to be married at 28, or have a down payment put down on a house at 29? That’s what you do when you buy a house, right? Do those age deadlines sound right?
But I can tell you, these are stories we make up in our head. Things happen when they’re supposed to happen. As long as you approach life with a fair degree of genuine effort, there’s not much that could happen that would truly knock you irreparably off-course.
You thought you were gonna get that big promotion by December last year? Watch it happen in February of this year. Would that be so bad? Of course these are oversimplifications, but so are the weird narratives we feed ourselves to make ourselves feel bad on a near-daily basis.
Instead, just try to find a peace within yourself that you know things are going to work out, because you’re going to work to ensure that they do. You can trust yourself to do what needs to be done – and if that’s true, then there’s really no actual good reason to stress about it. It’s all in the most trusted hands you could think of: yours.
Enjoy your holiday, your rest of the year, and New Year’s too. Then, enjoy 2022. You more than deserve it.