How To Stay Committed To Change When We Are All So Tired

It has been about a month since many of us have declared our New Year’s resolutions, and, as in most years, the motivation to keep those resolutions is beginning to fade if it isn’t already almost completely gone. Even the “many of us” who made resolutions this year is not as large as it was last year. This decline is difficult to reconcile with the great number of people who are making changes in—or at least looking to change—where and how they work and given how many people there are who need a change. As employees who work in those areas know, the rise in burnout in medicine, law, academia and other industries is unsustainable.

It could be that people are just not formalizing their commitment to change through an annual declaration, yet it appears more likely that people are having difficulty seeing how change is possible. This inability comes partly from resilience fatigue, which is the exhaustion that comes from trying to stay motivated for such a long period of time. It also partly comes from not knowing how to set oneself up successfully for change. When faced with a sense that a challenge is too big, it becomes natural for people to focus on managing through the everyday rather than face the potential overwhelm of trying to break free from one’s status quo—even when the status quo is detrimental to health, happiness and productivity.

There are those, like Faith Hill, who gave up on the idea of New Year’s resolutions because 2022 seems to be as uncertain as 2021. Yet Hill abandons New Year’s resolutions not only because the road to Damascus is so fraught with insecurity. She also provides a few persuasive arguments for why one should not make resolutions even when the path is clear. For example, she writes that committing to goals may actually undermine one’s motivation to carry them out, they may cause the person to focus too narrowly on her goals rather than on the growth those goals are meant to facilitate and that even fulfilling one’s goals may not lead to happiness.

While Hill’s arguments are convincing for those who already are looking to abandon New Year’s resolutions or commitments to change in general, they do not help those who want to find a new modus vivendi. In fact, her arguments serve more as rationalizations for not acting towards change than as reasons to continue in one’s current mode of living.

Mary Gentile explains the difference between reasons and rationalizations as follows: The former reveals why we want something; the latter reveals how we are “uncomfortable with a decision or action but are afraid of the consequences of voicing and acting upon that judgment.” Gentile applies this distinction to help people advocate for what they believe in when they encounter values conflicts in the workplace, yet the same distinction can apply when people have an internal conflict between what they want to do and the inertia they confront that stops them from going after what they want.

Instead of asking oneself, “Should I even make a commitment to change?” and risk an onslaught of rationalizations, a better strategy may be to say, “I want to change. How can I do so in a way that will be effective, where I can mitigate the potential obstacles that stand in my way?”

Of course, it helps when organizations allocate resources to support their employees in navigating around those obstacles. In fact, organizations are investing in well-being and resilience programs to do just that. For example, to alleviate the consequences of the significant burden placed on healthcare employees because of the pandemic, the Biden-Harris Administration just apportioned $103 million to create programs that address burnout and advance mental health among healthcare workers. Yet, systems support can only help a person who knows how to make use of it. As the saying goes, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.

In her new book, The Awesome Human Project: Break Free from Daily Burnout, Struggle Less, and Thrive More in Work and Life, Nataly Kogan provides a roadmap for people who want to reach a different destination. Based on lessons derived from trial and error in her own journey out of burnout and on current research in cognitive bias and distortions from neuroscience and psychology, Kogan serves as a helpful guide for how to recognize what may be holding a person back from even wanting something different. She also provides practices which reinforce choices so that they turn into habits, as well as short-term and intermediate-term goals and challenges which assist a person to stay on course.

The choice to seek out a different or better way of living may be constrained by external factors, but the choice itself is not out of our hands. New Year’s resolutions may have faded away, but we should not let the challenge of change burn us out completely. Maybe the first step to committing to change is recognizing the power we have in choosing to do so.