There’s no getting around it: 2020 was an exhausting year for all of us, especially from a mental standpoint. With a vaccine being distributed, 2021 is looking up, but the COVID-19 pandemic still doesn’t have a clear end in sight. But the new year shouldn’t be as psychologically taxing as the last—and here’s how setting priorities can make sure it isn’t.
Research has shown that women tend to expend more mental and emotional energy than men, and often don’t give themselves enough time to restore that energy. Your mental, physical, and emotional energy tie into each other more than you think. “Your energy levels are like a thermostat system—if one is depleted or restocked, you’ll typically get energy effects one way or another. For example, say you have a hard workout: Your work performance may decline as a result of the physical and emotional energy you’ve used there,” says Adrienne Langelier, a licensed professional counselor and sports psychology consultant near Houston. “With your focus pulled into another area of your life, you may experience emotional and mental stress with your feelings and thoughts becoming intertwined.”
Mental health experts agree: A healthy, happy 2021 is all about setting priorities and balancing energy. Here’s how to do it.
Begin with Intention
One of the most productive things you can do in divvying out your mental energy is making commitments that are in line with your values, Langelier says.
“Whether that is career, family, achievement, equality, one of the first steps on the roadmap is to really work on clarifying what’s actually important to you,” she says. “A lot of times you tend to feel more grounded when you have your intention set from the smallest to the largest scale.”
When it comes to setting priorities, Kristin Keim, a clinical sports psychologist in Newberry, South Carolina, recommends focusing on three pillars of your life: your personal relationships (family, friends, or coworkers), your occupation, and your hobbies or forms of self-care.
“Figure out what activities aside from work you spend a lot of time on, such as your athletic identity, and look at how much energy you’re putting into it compared to your work and [relationships],” she says. “Once you examine these areas, you can see if you’re putting too many hours into your job now that you’re working from home, for example, which can be getting in the way of putting energy into something you’re truly passionate about. The person we want to be shouldn’t be forced. It’ll happen organically if you’re putting your energy into the right places and reciprocating it.”
Both Langelier and Keim recommend keeping a journal or vision board to articulate and illustrate your goals, and write down how you’re going to tangibly work on them. These can be anything from education, finances, and romantic relationships to fitness or social justice goals, among other areas.
“This can help you take time to just slow down and really check in with yourself and figure out if you’re tired or need to make some changes,” Keim says.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, Langelier recommends examining how much energy you’re putting into basic aspects of your life, such as nutrition, sleep, and movement. Then you can examine relationships, training, and larger issues and determine what could stand to receive a little more focus, with or without the help of a professional.
“At the end of the day, all energy is energy and each aspect ties into others more than you think,” she says.
Set Clear Boundaries
By definition, a boundary is a limit of a subject or sphere of activity, Langelier says. However, her definition with regard to the sphere of humans is the question, “Where do I begin and other people and other things end?” Boundaries define a clear separation between who you are, what you do, and where your energy goes.
“Some of the benefits of setting clear boundaries include better performance, less stress, less depression, improved focus, and improved relationships, because if we have more clearly defined boundaries of what we are and are not able to do, then we’re going to be more present for the relationship and the activities that actually matter to us,” she says.
“Even if you’re working from home, you need fluid structure, such as designating a work space and work hours,” Keim adds. “It doesn’t have to be rigid, but by protecting your work boundaries, you’ll ultimately be protecting your energy too.”
Other physical boundaries, such as limiting physical contact or social media usage, can be easier to nail down compared to emotional boundaries that can affect your energy, Langelier says.
“If you’re able, choose what you’re consuming and when, which can include limiting your screen time. Physically distancing yourself from the phone is one way to implement boundaries,” Langelier says. “If you set a goal to look at a screen less, or spend less time on your phone, more than likely your mood and your productivity will increase because you’re not constantly being bombarded with inputs that aren’t necessarily in alignment with the direction you need to go.”
Other important social-emotional boundaries include choosing what you say yes or no to, though that often requires some advance planning, Langelier says. This can include in-person gatherings you may be uncomfortable attending for COVID-related or other reasons, or even one too many scheduled Zoom calls with friends or family if it’s starting to feel forced (video call fatigue is real, too).
“If you’re going into a situation where there’s pressure to do more than you feel that you have the capacity to do, it can be helpful to plan ahead, maybe even rehearse what you want to say and what you’re actually willing to do,” she says. “Boundaries often need to be continually put in place, so learning when to say no and when to say yes is always an important thing.”
Create Space for Change
In 2020, many people experienced unpredictability in their careers. Whether it was a transition to working fully remote or even an unexpected layoff , there were countless challenges for individuals to address when it came to their jobs. Could they afford their rent or mortgage if their company’s temporary furlough turned into a full-time layoff? Did they need part-time work? Would they even be able to find it? Without question, the financial impacts of the pandemic made it challenging for many to feel a sense of control.
However, if there was any kind of silver lining in all the stress, the abrupt shakeups have helped a lot of people sit down and consider what they really want for themselves as they navigate their next steps.
“Now more than ever is also a good time to recognize that it doesn’t matter how old you are or where you are in life—you can go back to school or change careers whenever you want to,” Keim says.
That drive for change may not be limited to your career path. Keim also recommends taking a look at how happy you are in your current physical location. “If you’ve been unhappy with where you’re living and are now working remotely or looking for the next opportunity, now is the time to finally consider making a move,” she says.
Settle for a Slowdown
Experts agree that while self-powered change can create a sense of control and refreshing positive energy in a person’s life, it’s equally important to honestly evaluate the areas where charging forward may not be the right path right now.
Many women are inclined to maintain some routine with their running. Even without in-person races to train for, we can still reap running’s mental and physical benefits. However, both Langelier and Keim agree that it’s best to not push yourself to your true limits while we’re facing all of this uncertainty.
When races started getting canceled at a high rate in 2020, many women were finally able to take a step back and gain some clarity: Running will always be there and races will eventually come back. Easing up and taking care of yourself now will allow you to show up to the start line stronger when it’s safe to return to large races again.
“If you’re struggling in this area, go back and ask yourself why you run and what got you out the door to run and race in the first place,” Langelier says. “I’m not saying don’t have goals, but we need to be realistic and look at other reasons other than times, PRs, and races, because we don’t know what’s going to happen next year.” Working with a running coach can also help get you to a healthy place in your training and set the right targets and focuses throughout the year, Langelier says.
“It’s key to remember that progress isn’t always going to be linear,” she says. “It’s important to recognize every little victory along the way, which can also tie into your long-term goal setting.”
Keep Checking In
Although mental health experts agree that just about anyone can benefit from professional therapy, the fact is, many Americans didn’t prioritize it prior to the pandemic. No doubt that’s partially because of the time commitment and added hassle of an in-person session (as well as the often prohibitive cost). Now, a large majority of therapists are offering their services remotely through phone or video call, which is beneficial for many who would otherwise end up sacrificing their mental wellness.
Keim believes that it’s important to normalize getting professional mental health help and that everyone should have a therapist they’re committed to, just like most have a primary care physician. And thankfully, it’s become easier to find the help you need: Organizations like the National Alliance on Mental Illness and Mentalhealth.gov offer free peer-support hotlines and resources to navigate mental health services that may be covered by health insurance.
“You don’t have to check in every day, week, or even month. But it’s important to have someone to turn to, whether it’s a sports psychologist or other therapist,” she says. “At the end of the day, it’s important to remember and that it’s OK to get help, and it’s OK to not be OK.”