As we look at what we’ve learned about the world of work this year, there’s plenty to make us hopeful for what’s next. It’s a prime time for new choices, changes, and aspirations ahead.
At Quartz at Work, too, we’re taking a look back before a new year. Here’s one subject that resonated with us this year: the work of making goals, of sticking to—or subverting—them, and of knowing when to walk away.
Our top pieces from the year in work can point the way ahead. Consider a few lessons for a fresh start, as told by our favorite stories about making changes this year.
The science of starting over
Cyclical beginnings, like the mark of a new year, help us find invigorations to start anew with our goals. To understand how, look to the fresh start effect, first named by a team of behavioral researchers in 2014.
The power of a fresh start, they suggested, comes from temporal landmarks, or moments in time that mark new beginnings. Those landmarks could be the arrival of a new week, month, or year; they might be an annual marker like a birthday or holiday; they can even be the start of intervals like a new review season or project sprint.
These landmarks, the researchers write, mark the passage of time and create what they call new mental accounting periods. By breaking our thinking into these periods, they suggest, we can push our dissatisfactions into a period firmly behind us—and feel motivated to achieve new goals in the next.
Re-eval, reroute, and reset
If fresh starts can push our motivation into drive, how can we use them to work towards more satisfying habits and goals? Take a few tips from our trending stories this year.
1. Find possibility in ambiguity. “Evolutionarily, the brain dislikes uncertainty, regarding it as a type of pain,” write Andrea Small and Kelly Schmutte of the Stanford d.school on mindsets for creativity. But, they argue, the absence of certainty makes us more flexible and open-minded—and that’s key for more creative goal-setting.
To build a bank of new ideas, goals, and achievements ahead, we can resist our evolutionary bias towards certainty—and embrace ambiguity to imagine more of what’s possible. Ask yourself: Can I set goals I don’t know how to achieve yet? What potential might I find there?
2. Reclaim control of your time. “Workers are becoming more mindful of how much time and energy they dedicate to work at the expense of other relationships and interests,” writes Lila MacLellan in her story about the appeal of the four-day workweek.
Our motivation, she finds, isn’t really about the time asked of us; it’s about the autonomy we feel with the time we have. Ask yourself: Do I feel in control of the time it’ll take to achieve this milestone, form this habit, or reach this goal? If not, how can I adjust my commitment to match the time I’m willing to give?
3. Audit what you give your best to. “The fundamental building block of a workweek is how each individual spends their time. But surprisingly, little attention is dedicated to how we design our hours,” Banks Benitez writes on how to reassess our time for better achievement.
To be motivated to achieve changes, he says, we need to start small: audit, then redesign just one day with your goals in mind. Ask yourself: How can I spend my time differently to achieve my goals? What small changes can I test and repeat to codify them into habits?
4. Question what it all means. “If you’re familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, you may remember the pinnacle of its pyramid: self-actualization, the feeling that we’ve become everything we’re capable of becoming,” Gabriela Riccardi writes in a story about mattering at work. But towards the end of his life, Maslow amended his model with a new height: self-transcendence, or a sense of meaning in what you do.
We can look to that motivating need to make goals that matter more to us. Ask yourself: How are my current goals adding meaning to my work? If they aren’t, what goals can I build to find more meaning?
5. Get comfortable with caring less. “Sometimes we need to rein in our big ideas and aspirations and simply focus on doing the essential work asked of us,” Anna Oakes writes of what she calls the care-less approach. Reorganizing where we put our energies leaves us with more motivation for the goals that count.
Caring less, she writes, isn’t about sticking it to the system; it’s about safeguarding your energy for better purposes. Ask yourself: How can I protect my wellness as I look to hit my goals with my fullest impact? Where can I pull back on expectations so I can achieve what I want?
Calling it quits
Choosing to begin new things often signals the natural end of others. Sometimes, too, we find that the big goals, changes, and milestones aren’t serving us like we thought they might. There’s no shame in quitting—even, as former senior reporter Sarah Todd writes, if you’ve just started at it.
“Sometimes it’s hard to admit the major change that we need—because then we would have to do something about it,” writes contributor Cate Huston on quitting. “If you’re reading this, maybe it’s a sign that you should do some reflection on what you want out of your life and career.”
As you look forward to a fresh start, it’s worth evaluating how well your current aims and aspirations are serving you. Then relegate the ones that haven’t to the past. It may just make you more invigorated to begin anew.
Our roundup of stories for starting anew
🌀 To be more creative, embrace ambiguity
✨ There’s one job perk more popular than a four-day workweek
⏳ 4 ways to create, use, maximize, and sustain your time
🫂 Is mattering the key to well-being at work?
😌 To protect your mental health, try the “care less” approach
You got The Memo
We’re wishing you a restful end to 2022. Keep an eye out for the first edition of The Memo in the new year, as we predict what we’ll see in the world of work in 2023.
Send questions, comments, and tips for starting over to email@example.com. This edition of The Memo was written by Gabriela Riccardi (about to audit her hopes and dreams) and edited by Anna Oakes (thinking she may be ready to set goals for the first time since 2020).