Most of us love the holidays (or if not the holidays, then at least the step back from work that accompanies them). Coming back to the office in January? Not so much.
There is the grim weather in most of the country, of course. But it's not just the prospect of unbroken months of snow, ice, and darkness that get to us. It's also that the holiday pause gives us time to reflect on our lives, and we don't always like what we see. Add that to the stresses and self-reckonings that accompany returning home for festivities and it's no huge shock that science says January plays host to the most miserable moods of the year.
Do you just have to accept your seasonal grumpiness? Nope, argued University of Texas at Austin psychologist Art Markman on the Harvard Business Review blogs recently. In his post, he suggests a pair of research-backed strategies to beat the January blues, while other studies offer another complementary idea.
1. Appointments beat resolutions.
We all know resolutions almost always fail and are often a source of future self-loathing. But while vowing to transform your life is inviting disappointment, Markman insists that more specific goal setting can help you get through the start of the year slump.
New year reflections might "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,'" Markman cautions. "In fact, these abstract goals can be paralyzing. They're simply too big to make meaningful progress toward."
The solution is to "turn your goal into specific actions that when added up lead to the desired outcome," he continues. "Break the general goal down into tasks that can be put on your calendar."
Not only does actually putting things into your calendar nudge you to come up with an actionable plan for reaching your goals, it also forces you to reckon with how exactly you're going to fit those steps into your busy life. So bust out your calendar and start filling it up with positive actions for the new year if you feel the blues creeping in.
2. Hijack your comparison habit.
Another big source of post-holiday unhappiness is all the comparing we do over the break. Is my brother more successful than me? Should I feel bad that I ran into my old high school buddy and he's driving a way flasher car than me? Since I got a bigger bonus than the guy three desks over, can I take my foot off the gas a little?
It's natural for humans to consider how they measure up against their peers, and the proximity and slowness of the holidays facilitates this tendency. But such comparisons usually make us miserable (or complacent).
Instead of letting comparisons eat away at you, Markman offers the same suggestion as bestselling author Simon Sinek: designate yourself a worthy work rival. (Sinek's is fellow author Adam Grant).
"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," Markman suggests. This should drive you to do your best work without also driving you to despair.
3. Exercise strategically.
Finally, it can't be ignored that January is just objectively grim in many places. It's cold, gray, and hard to get outside much. All the sitting around in limited light that results can have a huge impact on our moods.
Handily though, a bucket load of science has found that doing just ten minutes a day of moderate anaerobic exercise like push-ups or other basic calisthenics is enough to significantly improve your state of mind. That's an amount and type of exercise you should be able to manage so matter how housebound you are.
So while you're managing your forward-gazing goals and your backwards-looking comparisons, also take just a few minutes to help your body and mind beat the gloom with a little extra activity now.