Everyone who lived through the year 2020 will forever remember that year and its hardships and struggles. Pandemics like Covid-19 are both transformative and rare, and the lessons that we take from that year can either help us or hurt us. Work and family life was disrupted, while vacations, family gatherings, and social life came to a standstill during this once-in-a-lifetime pandemic year. Things that we took for granted suddenly weren't such a sure thing, and each one of us whether we liked it or not faced the distinct possibility of disabling illness and even death.
So is there a silver lining here? That's the key question for 2021. It's tempting to try to bury painful or unpleasant memories and move on. Do we chalk up 2020 to a lousy year and pretend it never happened, or do we learn whatever lessons we can and improve our preparedness for a better future?
I thought about these issues this week while hearing US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy being interviewed. Dr. Murthy is the first public health official that I've ever heard worry out loud about mental health and disconnection. He even wrote a book about the loneliness epidemic, which I reviewed here. In this interview Murthy mused about what our post-pandemic lives should look like. Do we jump right back into 2019 routines, or do we pause and seek out more friends, family, purpose or meaning, given what we experienced in 2020? There are signs that some people aren't running back to the same jobs. Some minimum wage workers are changing careers, and office workers are considering working from home more than they were before.
We all had a lot of time to pause and reflect on our lives since we pretty much had no choice. Disturbing routines can be very upsetting, but it's essential if you want to find better patterns of behavior that are more suited to your goals in life. Netflix and jigsaw puzzles were pleasant distractions, but now that the pandemic is or will soon be over for many of us (except the few vaccine deniers who insist on prolonging things), it may finally be time for a fresh start.
The fresh start effect has been written about in psychology publications many times. Like clockwork, every year on January 1 everyone is faced with a clean slate and a new year, and many choose to set new goals and begin new projects. More often than not, New Year's resolutions get broken and discarded, but many don't, and the momentum of the fresh start transforms lives in the process. And January 1 isn't the only date that fresh starts reset our lives- for some it's the first day of spring, the first day of school or a new job, or their birthday. Any day that serves as a gateway from one way of thinking and behaving to another is an opportunity for a fresh start, including Mondays and the first day of each month.
The post-Covid fresh start is especially powerful because so many of us are going through it at once, and the pandemic uprooted so many routines all at once. For some of us there will always be our lives before 2020 and our lives after that, and here's hoping that the lessons from 2020 helped us appreciate those around us and why we are here in the first place.
Our past can serve as both a springboard or a prison. Our past makes us who we are today, but it also prevents us from doing new things because the old ways are just soooo comfy. (Or confronting them is too painful). The energy of a fresh start comes from the realization that for a brief moment we get to toss away parts of our past that aren't working for us, and try something new and different.
So why are we here? What goals do we still have yet to achieve? Big questions like these rarely get asked in this fast-moving age of information overload, but they need to be discussed if we want to find happiness. You may have realized that your old workplace was a toxic pit, and the thought of going back there makes you sick. If that's the case then use this fresh start to find someplace better. You may have realized that the people you were stuck with in quarantine with have many more dimensions than you ever thought. For many of us, confronting random sickness and death makes us learn not to take being alive and healthy for granted, and inspires us to make each day count. Before people leap back into their old lives like nothing happened, it makes sense to pause and reflect to take advantage of any possible fresh starts that await them.
So why do resolutions and attempts at change fail so often? Past failures can dissuade us from ever trying again, but we shouldn't give up hope that things could get better. People are often good at making goals and resolutions, but not so good at following up and succeeding. Here are three tips that experts recommend when trying to change things up:
1- Don't overdo it. Set goals that are reasonable and reachable. Don't take on too many things all at once. Find the one or two things that you've really noticed need changing and work on those. Then take small, achievable steps in order to get there.
2- Be specific. Don't just say "I want to make more money." Figure out how much money you want to make and set your plans accordingly. Vivid pictures are more powerful than vague goals. The better you can measure your change, the more you will be motivated when you see it for yourself.
3- Enlist others. Change is hard, and we all need help. Don't be afraid to take classes, try counseling, or join groups of like-minded people who all seek the same changes. Having an accountability partner can keep you motivated when you quietly want to give up when things get hard.
We aren't here to accumulate the most money, friends, or things. We are here to learn, grow, and love. When the year 2020 arrived, I had a feeling that this was going to be a decade of substantial, overdue change, and things are moving that way so far. So don't let the post-pandemic fresh start go to waste. Take this opportunity to look at the world through fresh new eyes and make it better. And keep looking for those fresh start opportunities, because there will be more of them as things unfold.