A new year or semester, simply by being a new year or new semester, won’t magically resolve the challenges we’re faced with. A fresh start can bring a sense of renewal, yet it’s important to highlight that we have some control and capacity within ourselves to achieve our goals.
This is not to say that there are no obstacles outside of our control. There are many factors that, no matter how hard we work, we cannot avoid. No matter what goes on around us, however, there are some strategies we can use to thrive. Before we get into the strategies, think back over the last semester and last year. Take a moment to reflect on and celebrate the resilience you’ve shown.
Imagine you’re looking for a pearl at the bottom of a lake. If you start by swimming around like mad, stirring up the mud, the water is going to be murky. Murky water will make it impossible to see the pearl. If you slow down and make sure the water is calm, you’ll see the pearl clearly. If we work frantically towards a goal without setting up the right conditions, we’ll lose sight of what we’re trying to accomplish. We'll flail in the mud.
Create calmness and space by slowing down. Set up the optimal conditions first. Remind yourself that big goals and the future can feel overwhelming. That is normal and okay. Take some time to think through what conditions you thrive in.
Do you need a quiet place to study? Would regular professional support to talk through challenges help you feel calmer? Do you need a clean room? Do you need to exercise before you begin coursework? Do you need to take a day alone to relax before classes start? Everyone’s ideal conditions are different. Be intentional about setting up the right conditions for you before you dive into the goal. You’ll notice goals seem less overwhelming when you start with this step. By creating the ideal conditions you’ve already made progress towards your goal.
It’s three years from now and you run into a friend you haven’t seen in three years. They say, “hey I’ve been meaning to ask you all these years what happened. What happened, what did you do?” Journal or think through how you answer. Write in the present tense, as if you are in the future answering the friend’s question. So instead of saying, “I would say that I had xyz” try “I am now x and I did xyz.” In doing this, you get the opportunity to meet yourself at your destination.
What are some of the things, big or small, that the future you did in those three years to get to where they are? Once you have a few things in mind, pick one that energises you most, that you’re closest to accomplishing, or that really needs to happen. This exercise will help you tune out the white noise and focus on what is most important for you. Remember that the future you doesn’t need to be dramatically different from present you or have a long list of accomplishments.
Once you’ve identified your goal how do you start making progress towards it? Research shows that just by setting a specific goal we are more likely to achieve it. Setting and working towards a goal, no matter what the outcome, can also have a positive impact on your mood. By reading this and thinking through what you’re working towards you’ve already begun to accomplish. Take a moment to celebrate that.
Next, take what you’ve uncovered from talking to the future you and write down your goal. Remember that goals can be a way that you want to feel, a relationship you want to form or improve, or something you want to learn. Goals don’t need to be something you can put on a CV or earn an award for.
Be sure that you’ve framed your goal using positive language. Instead of, “I want to stop isolating myself” try, “I want to build more friendships at uni”. Finally, break the goal down into small, manageable pieces. Think through what needs to happen today to reach this goal. What needs to happen this week to reach the goal, this month, this year. Keep an eye on what needs to happen in the weeks and months ahead but keep your focus on working towards what you need to do today. Little by little your progress towards your goal will build.
If your goal is, "make it to all my classes without missing any because of my depression"... trying to never feel depressed again is going to be too overwhelming for anyone. Instead, start small. Can you come up with one coping strategy today that you can try like making a playlist? Can you look up your uni’s counselling centre and read a little about it? Maybe that playlist turns into being able to go on a run then exercising every morning before class for a week. Start small and keep an eye on the peak but your focus on each small step.
It is key to take time to pause and reward yourself for all the resilience you’ve shown. Take time to stop, reflect, and check in. Show gratitude to yourself and keep monitoring your progress. Repeat the strategies outlined here if you ever feel off track or overwhelmed.
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