Somewhere around the third week in December work in many offices starts to slow down. There are holiday parties. Customers and clients may be harder to reach. Energy and motivation wanes. And many of us sign off from work completely to spend the holidays with friends and family.
And then January arrives, and it’s time to get back in the swing of things. But, after being out for a week or two, it can be hard to snap back into work mode. If you’re feeling sluggish and unmotivated, you’re not alone. There are several reasons for this kind of the post-holiday funk — and, fortunately, there are things you can do to get out of it as well.
It’s common around New Year’s Day to look back at the past year. Research on construal-level theory suggests that the more distant you are from anything in time, space, or socially, the more abstractly you think about it. Getting out of the office and looking at the whole year leads you to think about your contribution and not just the tasks you did. This is natural and healthy. After all, your contribution in the last year was not the 16,471 emails you sent, but rather the relationships you solidified, the projects you oversaw, and the collaborations you continued as a result of those emails.
But while you’re likely to be proud of some things you accomplished, you may also be thinking about some of your failures. These are often the source of many people’s New Year’s resolutions.
Of course, noticing last year’s failures can be disheartening. And around the new year, you may end up in a cycle of thoughts about what you could have done differently in the past. This kind of rumination can actually heighten feelings of depression and anxiety, which sap your motivation.
When you get back to work, it’s important to start looking forward to the new year rather than back on the past one. Treat the goals you want to accomplish as new challenges and a source of energy not a penance for things you didn’t get done last year. Focusing on the future — and seeing new opportunities to succeed — can help you to generate the energy to get started.
Your reflections on the past year might also lead you to commit to making changes. This is a good thing but not if your commitments are abstract, like “be more productive,” “get a new job,” or “become a better leader.”
In fact, these abstract goals can be paralyzing. They’re simply too big to make meaningful progress toward. Instead, turn your goal into specific actions that when added up lead to the desired outcome. This kind of specific plan is called an implementation intention. It requires that you break the general goal down into tasks that can be put on your calendar.
This specificity has two benefits.
First, it requires you to think through what actually has to be done to achieve the goal. You may discover that you don’t know all the steps or that some of the steps are ones that involve skills you need to learn. In that case, you might want to find a mentor or coach who can help you.
Second, being specific forces you to grapple with your densely packed schedule. One reason why people often fail to achieve important goals is that they cannot find the time to perform the tasks that would lead to success. When you try to add new actions to your agenda, you are forced to figure out what can be moved, delayed, or delegated in order to put you on the road to following through on your commitment.
Make the right social comparisons
A third possible source of post-holiday funk is social comparison.
Humans don’t evaluate things on an absolute scale. Instead, we assess our success relative to some standard. Often, we do that through the process of social comparison, in which we compare ourselves to someone else.
There are two kinds of social comparisons. Upward social comparisons involve comparing yourself to someone better off than you are along a particular dimension. For example, you might see a high-school friend who just got a promotion, or a college friend who just bought a car that you dream of owning some day. These comparisons tend to make you feel bad about yourself, because they highlight what other people have that you don’t, whether it’s money, social standing, or particular relationships. Downward social comparisons are comparisons to someone worse off than you. These comparisons generally make you feel good about yourself and your situation.
Unfortunately, both kinds of comparison can sap your motivation. Upward social comparisons can frustrate you, knowing that other people you know are more successful, happier, or wealthier than you are. Because of the way people curate their social media, if you just look at where people are taking vacations or what they post about their jobs, it’s easy to believe that most people are doing better than you are, which may lead you to feel like giving up.
When you make downward social comparisons, you feel better about what you have and what you have accomplished, but you aren’t motivated to continue pushing forward. Instead, it makes you satisfied with where you are and, often, complacent. The energy you need to motivate yourself comes from being dissatisfied with something about the present, along with developing a plan to get what you want.
You can’t stop yourself from making social comparisons, but you can explicitly manage those comparisons to motivate you. For example, you can find a close rival — someone who is doing slightly better than you are along some dimension, but whose performance is close enough to your own that you can see how you could take some actions to reach their level.
You can also make social comparisons to your past self. Take a look at your trajectory. Recognize that even if you haven’t achieved all of your goals, you have improved over time. Use that recognition of your own growth to spur you to keep working to reach new heights.
No one wants to start the year off in a rut. And yet many of us begin January too focused on the past and feeling bad about what we have yet to accomplish. With some small changes in your perspective, though, you can hit the ground running in the new year.
Art Markman, PhD, is the Annabel Irion Worsham Centennial Professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas at Austin and founding director of the program in the Human Dimensions of Organizations. He has written over 150 scholarly papers on topics including reasoning, decision making, and motivation. His new book is Bring Your Brain to Work: Using Cognitive Science to Get a Job, Do it Well, and Advance Your Career (HBR Press).