“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” ( John Lennon)
I don’t know about you, but I gave up making New Year’s resolutions somewhere back in Obama’s first administration. Instead, I started making action plans, neat little Word-generated tables with 3-hour writing blocks and chunks of time allocated to house projects, gardening, agent searches, and guitar playing. No negativity allowed. I will write from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. each day. I will clean the attic, organize the pantry, query two agents every week, and figure out how my Nikon camera works.
Every December, after the holiday hoopla subsided, I made a new action plan. Another attempt to quantify my time and direct my life. Imposing a strict limit of 15 minutes for e-mail and social media twice a day, I could feel my muscles tense each time I signed into my Google accounts (both professional and personal), then ripped through the tangle of likes, retweets, and new follows on Twitter, before sprinting to the finish line on Facebook, exhausted and always 20 to 200 minutes behind schedule.
The Best Laid Plans …
The problem with life is that it refuses to lie down and be compartmentalized. My perfectly-constructed little blocks allocating hours to this or that goal were always under siege. The car broke down. A filling fell out of my tooth. The cat got sick. The hot water heater flooded the basement. Unlike laundry (which you can always do at 2 a.m. after all your other to-dos are done), most schedule interrupters just … erupt. And there goes your plan.
One of my favorite illustrations of this is a story my neighbor told. When he was in his 20s, Matt decided to celebrate his college graduation by hiking the Appalachian Trail end to end before starting a graduate program. A consummate planner, Matt did his research and talked to others who had made the trek. He assembled the recommended equipment, and a month before departure, drove the entire trail, stopping to bury caches of food and water at each night’s designated camp spot. Goal set. Prep done. Game on.
But Matt got sick the week before his departure and had to be hospitalized. By the time he recovered, the summer was gone and his graduate program was about to start. By the end of that, he was married. He spent the next 25 years raising four kids. If those caches of food are still out there, they’ll be celebrating their golden anniversary soon. Personally, I like to imagine some grateful bears unearthed them.
New Year New You (and Other Inanities)
This morning, at the gym, I saw a TV ad: New Year, New You! That perennial January favorite that lures us into believing we can will events to synchronize with our goals. But unless you’ve won the $10,000,000 lottery recently, and can pay others to handle all the annoying curve balls life throws, I predict 2017 will look remarkably like every other year you’ve lived. Stuff will go wrong. Stuff will break down. You’ll break down. And everything you thought would take two hours to accomplish will take three hours. Or three days.
New Year, New You? I think The Who nailed it, bang on truth, when they sang Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss (“Won’t Get Fooled Again”).
“New Year, New You” also suggests there needs to be a new you, but I’m willing to bet there’s nothing wrong with the old you. Maybe you want to curb your habit of checking your Twitter feed every 15 minutes, or limit your online Solitaire games to something reasonable like 50 a day, but basically there’s nothing wrong with you or me that a 48-hour day wouldn’t fix.
One of the most depressing documents I ever saw was a calendar for 2013 (this was in November of 2012) filled with events and appointments all the way through to December of the coming year. It wasn’t even my calendar, but it made me want to hide under the covers for the next twelve months.
Struggling to adhere to an airtight schedule, with day upon day of little boxes to tick, just zaps the joy from life. And the stress of trying to plan for every contingency, doubled by the distress of managing the interruptions you didn’t and couldn’t foresee—Surprise! Your cousin and her kids just came to stay for two weeks—leads to a life of wolfing down meals, working past midnight, ignoring friends, and the endless sinking feeling that you’re always running behind. When free time dwindles to a 15-minute slot every Tuesday, and a dinner out with your partner is just one more item to be checked off, you may find yourself wondering what’s the point? Don’t ignore that question. It’s the voice of sanity.
Anyone who knows me will tell you there is nothing as determined as a determined Amy, but doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results is the definition of stupidity. I may be ambitious, but I’m not stupid. So I keep searching for the better mousetrap.
Happiness is Sanity (Or Close Enough)
This January 1, I decided to take a new approach. One that puts a premium on inner peace and happiness. Call it a mental health year. I began by listing the things I’d like to do more of in 2017, the things that make me happy:
- Writing fiction
- Spending more fun time with my husband Ed
- Interesting cooking (something more exciting than fall-back, rush meals of omelets or packaged pasta)
- Playing guitar
- House projects (as opposed to house cleaning)
- Connecting with friends
That’s it. No boxes to tick. No word counts. No limits. Just a list of the things I love doing.
Atop my file cabinet, behind my desk, sits a card with an Annie Dillard quote: How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.
I want to spend mine happily.