If you’ve been beating yourself up for stalling out on long-term goals at some point after the realities of COVID set in, a new study published in the journal Motivation and Emotion suggests it might be time to reverse course and give yourself a big pat on the back for practicing self-care. Researchers at the University of Waterloo recently found in a survey of 226 participants that those who put their long-term goals on hold during the pandemic were better able to avoid depression and anxiety.
“Participants indicated that 28% of their goals — almost one-third — were frozen by the pandemic,” the study authors wrote. “In these difficult times, we can ruminate about the things we cannot do, or we can loosen our grip and disengage more fully. The current research demonstrates the benefits of disengaging more fully: relinquishing rumination towards COVID-frozen goals can support well-being.”
In the survey, researchers asked participants questions about “COVID-frozen goals” as well as those that were progressing normally. They found that the greater number of “COVID-frozen goals” people had, the greater psychological distress they experienced in the form of depressive symptoms, anxiety and stress.
The small size of the survey along with the subjective nature of self-reporting motivation and goal attainment make this study an interesting snapshot and jumping off point for further research, but limit sweeping and definitive conclusions. The study authors also acknowledge how the COVID pandemic uniquely affected goal pursual. Greater diversity amongst participants, a more precise and diversified measure of well-being and specific insights as to how often those surveyed think about their goals are all mentioned in the study as considerations for future research.
A significant percentage of respondents reported that their goals were frozen for external reasons like stay at home orders and quarantine protocols that made it incredibly difficult — if not impossible — to pursue relationship goals and any ambitions that required socializing or travel.
There’s also an acknowledgement that the chicken-or-the-egg relationship of crisis, motivation and mental health is neither binary nor linear. As circumstances change, people may disengage with some goals while continuing to pursue others. Or they might shelve ambitions that are unattainable for a season and replace them with goals that are more achievable.
The biggest takeaway from this particular study is for people to reflect on their pandemic experiences, and in future stressful situations, consider whether or not they would be better off disengaging more fully from their goals instead of putting unrealistic pressure on themselves to grind it out.
“Goal rumination is compulsive and can aggravate worries and frustrations while also taking away mental resources from other goals,” lead author Candice Hubley said in a release. “We hope people can apply these findings to their own life by taking the time to assess their goals and engagement with them.”