Getting past “Blue Monday” — and getting real about New Year’s career resolutions

Tradition holds that the turning point on the calendar is January 1, a time when resolutions to be lighter, healthier and better employed will transform us when the clock strikes twelve.  However, just this year I learned of two other milestones.

The first is January 6, officially considered the most depressing day of the year. January 6 apparently marks the convergence of some pretty gloomy forces:  return to the daily work grind; realization that dreary weather is here for the foreseeable future; an avalanche of holiday bills; and for many mortals, the acknowledgment that well-intentioned New Year’s resolutions are already far in the rear view mirror.

And if that wasn’t enough, we’re coming up on the dreaded Blue Monday, “celebrated” on the third Monday of every January. The term was coined by Cliff Arnall, a British psychologist and academic researcher specializing in seasonal disorders, who correlated the date with variables ranging from debt levels to plain old post-holiday mood deflation. While his findings were met with skepticism by some and the seven-variable algebraic equation he used is too elaborate for this former English major, it does raise the question of why we humans choose this time of year to set the loftiest of goals.  Does this feel like self-sabotage?

But here’s the good news:  we survived January 6, and Blue Monday  — January 20 this year — is almost a memory.  While it may feel like we are barely slogging through daily obligations, there is now a window, albeit frosted, for more clear-headed consideration of attainable career goals for the year ahead.

As a lifelong dieter, I see many parallels between weight- and job-related resolutions.  For starters, there is the pressure, internal and external, to go for broke, to set larger- (or smaller-!) than-life goals that set us up to feel like failures if we miss the mark.  In the dieting realm, this might look like “I will lose 30 pounds in 6 months,” or more tactically, “I will cut back to 1,000 calories a day and commit to daily workouts.” In the career space, it is often expressed in big-picture statements like “I will have my dream job by the end of the year” or more tactically, “I will set up three networking meetings every week.”

It’s not that setting blockbuster goals is inherently bad.  In both the weight loss and job gain spheres, the problems come when we don’t have a concrete – and this is the key – sustainable – path to achieve them.  And even before finding our path, we often need to answer the bigger questions: Whose goals are these anyway?  And, what are meaningful measures to assess my progress?

There is a classic saying in business that you can’t manage (or by implication, change) what you don’t measure.  In something as individualized as career search, we need to design measurements that are meaningful and not self-defeating.  This means setting goals — and milestones — that are both affirming and elastic.  Affirming means having just the right balance of challenge and achievability, and elastic means that every resolution is malleable and subject to human adjustment. Career exploration in your own voice ultimately means setting goals and tracking progress on your own terms.

As an example, someone contemplating a job change for the first time in 15 years might not feel immediately ready for a steady diet of weekly networking meetings.   Perhaps a more reasonable and helpful milestone would look like scheduling a couple of sessions with a career counselor to define goals and priorities.  For someone exploring a brand new field, a career resolution could be as simple as committing to attend a few meetings of the local chapter of a specific professional association.

Still more liberating, we can resolve to take these steps any time of the year, maybe ideally when we’re feeling warmer, less debt-laden and more acclimated to the cadence of regular work weeks without visions of Christmas cookie platters everywhere!

With Blue Monday almost behind us, let’s first resolve to shift our outlook on resolutions.