Back at the start of 2021, it seemed like life was returning to some sort of normality. The early days of the pandemic – when we were streaming back-to-back episodes of Tiger King and fussed over sourdough starters – were fading into the rearview. We were, for the most part, living in a mask-free world, returning to workplaces and renewing the goals we’d set in a pre-pandemic life. Given the sense of optimism, I decided 2021 would become the year I’d get on the property ladder. So I set myself the goal of becoming a homeowner by the end of the year.
Before you start laughing, I knew it wasn’t an easy task, but I was prepared. Sydney, where I live, is one of the most expensive places in the world to buy property. On a single income, the odds were against me. I’d accepted that I could not afford a multi-bedroom apartment. I’d narrowed my search to the suburbs I could afford. I’d had meetings to understand my borrowing capacity. I was familiar with terms like loan-to-value ratio and gazumping.
However, as we all know now, Covid-19 had other plans. By June, NSW had entered into its longest lockdown. I was thankful I had employment when so many people didn’t. I put my dreams on hold. As the months rolled on, we are now back in that time of reflection and my goal of becoming a homeowner is further from reach than before.
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Keen to find out if the pandemic – or the housing market generally – was to blame, or if I was accountable for my own actions, I called Dr Grant Blashki, clinical lead at Beyond Blue. Was I alone in struggling to achieve my goals this year? If so, what next for 2022?
“Be nice to yourself, it’s been a hell of a year,” said Blashki. “There have been a lot of pressures and disruptions in people’s financial, family and work lives. One thing the pandemic did is remind us that human beings really aren’t in charge. Nature is in charge. [Right now] we’re coming to terms with how something like the pandemic could even happen in the first place.”
Thinking back, I was navigating a full-time job, working remotely; I barely saw anybody outside the people I live with; and I ventured no further than five kilometres from my home for months. I took some solace, but blaming the pandemic somehow still didn’t feel right.
Afterall, I saw others sharing snaps of themselves on social media standing in front of glossy “sold” banners. Selling agents had shifted to online auctions and buyers were viewing properties virtually. It seemed, if there was a will (and the budget), there was a way.
Blashki drops the phrase “cognitive bandwidth” – and suddenly something resonates with me.
“You need a certain level of bandwidth and energy to maintain focus on achieving a goal,” he says. “During the pandemic, a lot of people felt like their cognitive bandwidth was soaked up in staying afloat during a very challenging time. They might not have had a lot of spare energy and headspace to focus on some of their broader goals, and I think a lot of people went into survival mode.”
For a lot of people around me, 2021 offered the strangest irony – we were doing “nothing” but were exhausted. It made me think, in a year that asked us to exist in the strangest of circumstances, was simply making it through the other side good enough? Instead of feeling frustrated, could I be grateful for other things?
Blashki thinks so.
“Sometimes ‘gratitude’ is an overused word,” he says. “But people should feel hopeful about the future as all the signs are showing that we are going to be able to live with Covid. We should all be picking some realistic goals to get back into things.”
First of all, “don’t spread yourself too thin – keep one goal or at most two. If you pick eight goals … you’re unlikely to succeed,” he says.
“Keep focused, realistic, specific goals. Make it something attainable, something measurable. Work with yourself, rather than against yourself. Be accountable and have a management plan for setbacks.”
As for me, I’m going to set myself the same goal for 2022 as I did for 2021.
While I hope to become a homeowner by the time the year is up, I’m taking Blashki’s advice to be a lot kinder to myself. I’ll be on the lookout to quell any negative self-talk and will be keeping tabs on my energy levels.
I’ll remind myself that achieving goals – despite how focused, realistic and specific they may be – relies on having the cognitive bandwidth to do so. Looking back on 2021, I’ve realised that I was simply staying afloat. Perhaps, in a world filled with uncertainty, that really is more than enough.