It happens to us all.
You come back from a holiday spent stuffing yourself with cookies and wondering what day of the month it is, toasting to the new year with big plans: In 2024, you’ll start working out. You’ll attempt a social life. Never again will you eat so many rich foods or wear the same pair of stretchy pants for such an embarrassingly uninterrupted period of time.
Then, a few weeks into January, reality sets in: You wake up for a 5 a.m. jog and it’s pitch black outside, the sidewalk slicked in ice. The droopy, sad-looking supermarket produce spoils your plan to eat more salads. You invite your friends out for drinks and find that no one, including you, is all that interested in leaving the house.
Welcome to the challenge of trying to reinvent your life in the dead of winter. It can be difficult enough to launch ourselves toward new goals at work, in our personal lives or with our finances at any time of year — but few of us account for the additional challenge of doing so as temperatures plunge and sunlight is still scarce.
That can hurt your self-esteem and your wallet. Many of us shell out extra cash in pursuit of a new-and-improved version of ourselves: A 2018 survey from software maker Quicken found that more than half of resolution makers spend money to stay on track — sometimes hundreds of dollars.
But if you’ve already abandoned your own New Year’s resolutions, you might just be onto something: A growing chorus of influencers, authors and experts are calling for a reframing of the way we think about the cold season. Winter is anything but the time to try and become a new you, they say. Instead, it’s the best time of year to rest and take it easy, especially on yourself.
They suggest a different way of thinking about winter, one that better reflects the natural world. Instead of goal-setting and self-discipline, embrace rest and reflection. Skip the 5 a.m. workouts for more sleep and slower mornings. Go ahead and accept that you won’t be leaving the house as much, and stock up accordingly on books, candles and other cozy comforts.
“Plants and animals don’t fight the winter; they don’t pretend it’s not happening and attempt to carry on living the same lives that they lived in the summer,” author Katherine May writes in her best-selling 2020 book, “Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times.” “They prepare. They adapt. They perform extraordinary acts of metamorphosis to get them through.”
“Winter is a time of withdrawing from the world, maximizing scant resources, carrying out acts of brutal efficiency and vanishing from sight; but that’s where the transformation occurs,” she continues. “Winter is not the death of the life cycle, but its crucible.”
‘Acting like it’s summer’
Avoiding the impulse to reinvent yourself could help make the winter months a lot less miserable, said Ally Mazerolle, a yoga and breath-work instructor.
Her video suggesting that people take it easy this season resonated wildly on TikTok, garnering more than 1.2 million views.
In the video, she explains that one of her friends had just reached out to express that despite a packed schedule, he couldn’t escape the winter blues.
“I asked him … are you acting like it’s summer when it’s winter?” she says in the video, posted in early January. “I want to remind you that winter just started. Right now is the time for dreaming, going within, resting and taking it slow.”
Mazerolle told MarketWatch she hadn’t expected the video to strike such a chord, but that it makes sense given the pressure so many of us feel to start the new year strong.
“People are exhausted,” she said. “You get into January and the expectation is so high to reset.”
It wasn’t the only popular post calling to rethink the winter season. Author Heidi Priebe expressed a similar idea on X, the social-media platform formerly known as Twitter, receiving about 73,000 likes.
What does it mean to act like it’s winter? For Mazerolle, it means earlier bedtimes and calmer mornings. It means more nights spent inside reading or crafting vision boards, and skipping some high-intensity workouts for gentle movement like yoga, she said — “moving my body in a way that feels nourishing rather than punishing.”
“It’s not to say that you have to hibernate and not go to work,” she added. “I think we just need a bit more rest.”
“We look to winter as something to get through, and we miss the essence of the season,” she said. “When we do rest in winter, we have way more energy for the rest of the year.”
‘There’s wisdom in slowing down’
Adjusting our habits during winter isn’t a new concept.
For centuries, indigenous people in North America mirrored the cycle of the seasons, said Sarah Sunshine Manning, an indigenous writer and director of communications for the NDN Collective, an indigenous-led advocacy group based in South Dakota.
Pre-colonization, many tribal nations held ceremonies honoring the winter solstice or practiced other ways of honoring the colder season, Manning said.
“There was always intentionality of aligning your daily practice, aligning ceremony with winter — a time when animals hibernate, when the roots of plants rest beneath the soil,” Manning said. “Our lifeways mirrored that.”
Colonization and assimilation efforts severed some communities from those traditions, she added, though some continue practicing them today.
Manning, a citizen of the Shoshone-Paiute Tribes of the Duck Valley Indian Reservation, continues her own version of that custom by acknowledging the winter solstice each December. She honors the shortest day of the year by slowing down, spending time with loved ones and tending to her home.
No two tribal nations are the same, but many indigenous religions have long shared the belief that humans are not an exception to the rhythms of nature, but a part of them, Manning said. That may not be how many people operate today, but it doesn’t mean the idea is obsolete, she added.
“It was not a primitive thing to follow the seasons. It was pragmatic and spiritually sophisticated,” she said.
“As humans, we need rest,” Manning continued. “There’s wisdom in slowing down.”
The psychological argument for slowing down
That approach may in fact have a biological basis, said Michael Varnum, an associate professor of psychology at Arizona State University who has studied the impact of the seasons on human behavior.
Perhaps one of the most well-known side effects of winter is seasonal affective disorder, a type of depression that correlates with changes in the season. But many people find their moods and energy levels dropping as the temperature does, Varnum said — not just those who meet the clinical criteria for SAD.
“A fair chunk of the population will experience declines in mood: negative emotions, less energy,” Varnum said, adding that it’s likely linked to decreased exposure to sunlight.
The season shapes our behavior in other ways, he noted. Research shows that many people have a higher sex drive in the winter months, and they also tend to be more charitable, according to one study showing people offer more generous tips in cold weather.
The risk of infectious diseases also increases this time of year, and some research shows we’re more avoidant of strangers and less willing to try new things.
It’s hard to say which of these phenomena are biological versus cultural, Varnum said, but they clarify that the shift in the seasons can have a larger impact on our behavior than we realize.
“Even with all these ways we can buffer and insulate ourselves [from the weather], we still see these ebbs and flows,” he said. “These basic aspects of our behavior and how we think seem to follow these seasonal patterns. We maybe don’t take them quite as seriously as we ought to.”
The case for ditching your resolutions
If you’re still self-flagellating for leaving your 2024 goals by the wayside, it may help to know that very few New Year’s resolutions actually pan out.
That’s because setting such high-stakes, long-term goals often brings us head-to-head with a number of common missteps, said Ayelet Fishbach, a professor at the University of Chicago and the author of “Get it Done: Surprising Lessons from the Science of Motivation.”
For example, we’re often too ambitious, she said. We don’t ask for help. We slip up once — by skipping a workout, or blowing our budget — and shame ourselves into oblivion, abandoning our ambitions altogether.
Most of the time, Fishbach said, we just don’t take the time to think seriously about what it might take to change our habits — waking up early, rearranging our schedules or recruiting loved ones to support us — and therefore don’t set ourselves up for success when the going gets tough.
“When you have a long drive ahead of you, you don’t just get in the car,” Fishbach said. “You’re going to be very tired; it’s going to be hard. You need to plan the rest stops. … You need to be empathetic to your future self.”
And if you’ve ditched your New Year’s goal already, rest assured: It was “probably the wrong one,” Fishbach said. It’s time to move on to a new way of thinking about that goal, she said — one that acknowledges there will be days when you won’t feel up to giving your best effort.
“I believe that any [sustainable] change starts with loving yourself and wanting to be good to yourself,” she said.
From Mazerolle’s point of view, you might as well push the process back to the springtime.
“It’s efficient for trees to conserve their energy; for bears to hibernate. For you to push yourself at the beginning of the year is not smart,” she said. “It’s actually more efficient to rest.”