It’s a month into 2021, and between the usual post-holiday lull and the non-stop wave of chaotic world events, it’s easy to already feel burnt out. Even in “normal” years, research shows most people’s New Year’s resolutions lapse by January 19th; add in pandemic exhaustion and a dash of doom-scrolling, and I’ve struggled more than ever to stay focused and motivated. It’s a near-universal feeling: Most, if not all, of us are experiencing the environmental and psychological effects of what so many emails have dubbed "these unprecedented times." At the same time, finding meaningful projects—no matter how big or small—feels more important than ever. Meeting a work deadline, finding a creative outlet, or simply committing to a moisturizing routine can be empowering and grounding in a time when very little feels secure. But how do we stick to the tasks we want and need to feel generative, stable, or generally sane?
When it comes to staying generative, "The most common roadblocks are lack of awareness and a strong inclination towards the comfortable and familiar," says Aileen Xu, entrepreneur, personal growth influencer, and creator of the Artist of Life Workbook. It’s easy to slip into autopilot, overwork ourselves, and then feel drained and discouraged. Xu adds, "We tend to give up or veer off track because it’s easier to stay the same than it is to change." At first, this seems counterintuitive—after all, wouldn’t staying the course help us achieve our goals? Science begs to differ: Not only is powering through tasks unpleasant, but studies show that it isn’t particularly useful, either. As one Forbes article demonstrates, self care actually improves cognitive functioning and productivity.
Rather than buckling down on a major task, and then berating ourselves for not feeling engaged, Xu recommends what she calls a reset routine. "A reset routine is a collection of activities that helps you 'press reset' on your life: organizing, self care, or taking care of life admin tasks," she explains. Despite the nomenclature, it's less a strict regimen than a handy arsenal of simple actions we can take when feeling overwhelmed. Prepping a routine in advance means less worrying about our downtime, and more authentic rejuvenation. "The purpose is to take time to recenter and find your balance in life again," adds Xu. "You’re aiming for the feeling of a clean slate."
I’m all too familiar with the sensation of being perpetually out of balance. If my deadlines are met, my dishes languish in the sink for days; if I’m sleeping enough, that means I’m ignoring my friends and family. I often feel like I exist in a purgatory of half-finished chores and assignments, where nothing is ever quite finished. To combat this feeling—and actually get things done—Xu recommends carving out intentional, limited time to divert our attention away from long-term goals. While giving yourself consistent opportunities for rest—and treating those opportunities as seriously as you would the work portion of your day—may seem counterintuitive or like you’re taking energy away from more "important" ventures, Xu argues, "Instead of expecting yourself to operate as you normally would, bringing more space and grace into your life will help take the pressure off."
Resetting is about prioritizing yourself and your well-being, investing time into the small actions that make a big impact on how you feel.” She adds: “Think: in order to breathe out, we must breathe in first. Working or hustling is like breathing out. Self-care and reset activities are like breathing in. We need both productive and restorative activities to keep our lives in balance.” If you’re applying to jobs, for example, making space for a break, full stop—yes, that means closing your laptop—and engaging a completely different part of your mind for five minutes will ultimately give you more energy and headspace, increasing your output when you get back to work.
Rebooting our brains in itself isn’t a unique concept—for years, studies have been touting resetting tools from sleep to hallucinogenic mushrooms. Many of these strategies, however, are expensive, time consuming, and require the sort of commitment that can become a task all its own. Xu’s advice, by contrast, is all about streamlining small, manageable activities that have already been proven to work for you into a go-to routine to manage stress. She counsels, “Resetting your mind could include: journaling, meditation, reading, cleaning, or going on a social media detox.” The most important thing to keep up with your reset routine, Xu notes, is choosing activities that feel restful for you: “Consider what activities help you feel like you have your life together, as it can be different for everyone. For me, a tidy space makes me feel more on top of things. If my space is cluttered, my mind feels cluttered. Still, I know that some people operate just fine with a messier space, so to each their own.”
If it’s as simple as that, why aren’t more of us taking the leap? “Lack of awareness of our thoughts, actions and tendencies is one of the primary roadblocks toward making progress in one’s life,” says Xu. “It takes a heightened level of awareness and focus to be able to make the everyday choice to take a step towards your goal. We might do well in the beginning when our focus is sharp. But oftentimes our focus fades, and so do our intentions to change.” When it comes to feeling like we’re doing enough, Xu confronts insecurity with compassion: “As much as hustle culture wants us to believe it, we cannot be grinding productively all the time. In order to operate at our best, we need to rest and take care of ourselves and our lives."