New Year Blues

We’ve smashed through 2015, bloated ourselves up over the Christmas holidays, once again made the pledge never to drink that much again (till next December), and slowly but surely the back-to-work cogs are greasing into gear, ready to tackle the big, scary 12 months that loom ahead.

But the thing is, they’re not, are they? February sneaked up and caught you completely off guard. January shuffled under the rug, ashamed and embarrassed, the despised month that pretends to offer the hope of bright, new things to come, and yet year-on-year just disappoints us with melancholy, awful weather, and a barrage of half-assed hashtag #diets.

When is it going to kick off? We’ve finally shuck off December’s hangover and grudgingly trudged through the leftover work we promised we’d have finished before Christmas, but we find ourselves plodding aimlessly into the ether of the new year, lonely and lost, grasping apathetically at something to drag us back to reality.

Remember those new year’s resolutions you made a month ago? No, you’ve forgotten them already, haven’t you. We’ll start there.

New-New Year’s Resolutions

Even if you somehow have managed to remember those resolutions from that heavy-headed January the 1st, forget them. Now it’s time to take stock again, reevaluate, and set yourself some targets for the next 11 months. What I like to do is have a think back to where I was this time 12 months ago, figure out how far I’ve come in one way or another, and then aim to progress that same distance and just a bit more than that in the next 12 months. Nothing too ambitious—I’m a cynic, and I know the reality of setting goals too high. Reach for the stars? No, let’s just start with the clouds. Or the top of that tree. Baby steps.

I think it’s a good idea to set a balance of quantitative and qualitative goals; a balance of new skills you wish to acquire, or a new role or step on your career ladder, but also how you want to grow as a person. For example, here are two of mine for this year:

  • Become fluent in Dutch.
  • Be more patient with my loved ones, and myself, and inanimate objects (don’t ask).

Consider January the buffer zone, the space you need to give yourself the necessary distance to assess the previous year; the gentle stroll out of the forest, untangling yourself from the last strands of undergrowth, that allows you to once again see the wood instead of the trees. Got the picture? Rewrote the plan? Time to dive back in!

The vicious circle of stagnation

The problem with January is that the weather is effortlessly awful; the short days, despite getting gradually longer, really start to become tedious; and we’re pretty much universally skint. No wonder we feel depressed. And when we come back to work it can take a few weeks for things to start moving again, because we’re not the only ones that feel this way—our bosses, our clients, our colleagues—everyone’s suffering.

This is a difficult time to feel inspired, and it often leads to a sense of stagnation, of perpetual plodding, which in turn diminishes our enthusiasm. We’re stuck in the quicksand and we lack the energy and motivation to struggle out of it, and yet we know that by doing nothing we will eventually sink.

We need a stick. More importantly, we need a friend with a stick.

A friend with a stick

This is the sort of situation where having friends, or friendly colleagues, is important. One thing I learned from reading Hardy Boys books when I was a wee nipper is that thrashing around aimlessly only makes matters worse, but if there’s a hanging vine or a friend who can reach out with a branch, you can gently tug yourself out of the mire.

What I’m trying to say is that talking to others, whether it be friends, colleagues, or superiors, really helps. They can offer different perspectives and advice that you mentally shut out when you keep that door closed. This might be a moan or rant, but you should also use it as an opportunity to let someone else help you dig out the positives amongst any negativity you may be feeling.

Finding the ‘I’ in team

Bringing this into the context of a digital agency, what can we do in a more collective fashion to help everyone get over the new year slump?

As team leaders, line managers, directors, or whatever, I feel we have a responsibility to also help our team members as well as ourselves. At the end of the day, an energised and positive workforce benefits everyone, and enthusiasm is infectious.

In order to get things back on track, agencies could have a ‘Back to School’ gathering where the big wigs summarise the previous year: what work was achieved, financials, the ebb and flow of staff, how processes improved, what fun times were had etc. This helps contextualise where we’ve come from. And it can be amazing how much we achieve in just 12 months sometimes. The flip side of this gathering will be to plan for the next 12 months, a sort of ‘new year’s resolutions for the company’, which allows everyone to have their say to help frame a vision on both a personal and company-wide level.

Exercise

Previously I’ve used exercise to  (rather unsuccessfully) keep the pounds off, and to get out of the house, to give my eyes a rest after staring at pixels all day. But in recent months I’ve really discovered the benefits of exercise upon my mental health.

Throughout winter we spend a lot of time indoors, we typically eat more and perhaps less healthy food, and as a consequence of the lack of daylight, most of us probably suffer from seasonal affective disorder. All these add up to a general feeling of depression and melancholy around this time of year. For some it may be even worse—I recommend a very illuminating and relatable article by Tobias van Schneider about panic attacks and anxiety.

That all sucks, big time. But I can promise you, without a shadow of a doubt or any medical expertise whatsoever, that regular exercise will absolutely make you feel better. It will give you more energy, but it will also relax you, it will help banish negative thoughts, promote positive thoughts, and also give you the mental clarity to make better decisions and picture your life with a few less clouds obscuring the way.

But you don’t like exercise? I bet you do, you just haven’t found the right exercise for you yet. Gyms suck—they’re full of super fit sporty people that somehow actually look good in lycra, and they’re full of mirrors so you’re constantly reminded how sweaty and red-faced you look. Mmm, sexy.

Instead, try setting up a weekly five-a-side football game with some colleagues and friends, perhaps a bout of squash, or try something a bit different like canoeing or rock climbing (there’s nothing like fear-induced adrenaline to make you feel good). If you want solo time, put on your bloody trainers, step out that door and go for a run. Even 10 minutes will do, it’s better than nothing. This isn’t about training for a marathon, it’s just about getting the blood flowing.

And if there’s one thing I’ve learned about exercise, running in particular, it’s that the more you do it, the better you get, and the better you get, the easier it becomes, and the easier it becomes, the more you enjoy it, and the more you enjoy it, the more you want to do it, and the more you do it, the better you get… and are you starting to see the cycle here? Screw the circle of stagnation—now it’s about the circle of feeling physically and mentally awesome!

It’s not all about you

Well, it is all about you, you selfish creature. But it’s not all up to you to fix it. Think of the New Year Blues as a design problem that needs solving. I’ve gone some way here to identify the symptoms and analyse some of the causes, and even offer some solutions. But every individual problem contains its own variables, that you will have to determine in your case. Identify the problem, sketch out some proposed solutions, prototype these solutions, perform some user testing on yourself to see what works and doesn’t, reiterate and repeat, and before you know it you’ll have a polished product ready to ship.

You’re the product. Yeah? And by ‘ready to ship’ what I mean is ready to kick ass in 2016!

Watch this space for news about my new self-help Youtube series launching soon (that’s a joke—that’s really, really a joke).