From finding balance to cultivating optimism, we caught up with a local expert about how to stay positive and embrace productivity post-summer in D.C.
Sara Oliveri, a life coach driven by the principles of positive psychology, has built her career around empowering others to thrive. The D.C.-based coach helps individuals and couples cultivate positive and productive mindsets to create more joyful lives. As we shift from summer to work-and-school mode, Oliveri weighs in with her tips for creating balance and sustaining that summertime joy year-round.
Intentionally Create Balance
American society’s struggle with work-life balance isn’t just a mindset issue. Our education and workforce systems are structured in a way that tends to breed an all-or-nothing approach.
For example, many high school and university courses don’t require graded assignments or exams until the final several weeks of class. Then, students take an extended winter or summer break where they typically don’t engage in their studies at all.
“This creates an imbalance that gets deep into our psyche at a young age: suffer, joy, suffer, joy,” Oliveri says. “So, we end up associating summer with relaxation and vacation, then dread returning to work because it represents the end of joy.”
Oliveri says the solution is to intentionally create balance. If you tend to associate summertime with fun and relaxation, try identifying which parts you love the most and make a plan for how to integrate them into your life year-round.
This could include giving yourself permission to enjoy lunch on a patio, exercising outside or going camping for a weekend.
“Think about what lights you up,” Oliveri says, “and how you can get some of this goodness during fall or winter. Fun doesn’t have to die when summer is over.”
Focus On What You Can Control
Many people associate returning to school or work with a loss of control over their time. People tend to perceive their bosses or teachers as dictators of their schedules.
To regain a sense of agency, Oliveri suggests practicing positive psychology exercises, which can help people refocus on the parts of life they can control.
The “What Would Make Today Great” exercise from “The Five Minute Journal,” a daily gratitude and reflection journal for mindfulness, is one of her favorites.
The exercise asks people to brainstorm three things that would make their day better. The only catch is their list items must be things within their control.
This might include picking up their favorite coffee, going for a short run or even sleeping in for just five minutes.
“No matter how busy someone is, this is a great exercise for feeling like you have influence over what happens in your life,” Oliveri says. “This can be a game changer in terms of overall satisfaction.”
Setting clear boundaries between work and personal time is especially important during transitions. People tend to jump into a busy schedule without fully considering how to sustain it long-term.
Starting at a slower, more conservative pace can help sustain a more balanced and fulfilling work and school schedule.
“As a society, we need to be more intentional about balance from the beginning,” Oliveri says, “not just when we begin to feel unbalanced.”
This is even more important when dealing with difficult personal situations, such as the death of a loved one or a break-up. Many also tend to use work as a coping mechanism, which can lead to neglecting their feelings.
Maintaining specific parameters around work allows people to reserve enough emotional energy to tend to their situation.
“Boundaries help give us bandwidth to navigate things in a healthy way,” Oliveri says. “Emotional multi-tasking is the source of a lot of mental health problems. It’s not possible to experience two different feelings in a meaningful way simultaneously.”
Current research shows optimism is the single most important factor in maintaining happiness and resiliency. This can be a powerful tool in shifting our mindsets from vacation to work.
Oliveri warns that people tend to succumb into several psychological pitfalls that dampen their optimism, though. She recommends people stay attuned to the following:
Don’t blame yourself.
Optimists recognize that when things go wrong, much of the situation isn’t their fault. Oliveri suggests asking yourself questions like, “What factors contributing to this outcome were out of my control?” This might include a difficult boss, the learning curve for a new subject or even our social conditioning around work.
“This mindset helps people feel less defeated and like it’s not personal,” she says. “It also encourages them to continue trying.”
Pervasiveness is the tendency to see everything as bad when one thing goes wrong. Oliveri suggests practicing exercises like “What Would Make Today Great” that encourage you to look at things in a more nuanced way. What things, even if small, are going well? And what has gone well in the past?
Stay aware of cognitive distortions.
Pay attention to the stories you’re telling yourself about the facts. Is what you’re telling yourself really true, or is it a negative assumption?
“Tricks like this can help us not blow something out of proportion,” Oliveri says.
Oliveri’s ultimate advice: Create the life you love. Life should be joyful and fulfilling year-round — not just during summer vacation. Try to understand what you value about both summertime and work, then shape a life that embraces both.
“It’s important we give ourselves permission to imagine lives that feel fulfilling every day,” she says. “You deserve to find joy.”
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