“I finally figured out the only reason to be alive is to enjoy it.”
― Rita Mae Brown
“Enjoy life. There’s plenty of time to be dead.”
― Hans Christian Andersen
“Do anything, but let it produce joy.”
― Walt Whitman (Leaves of Grass)
“You’re looking at the waves, but ignoring the sea.” ― Rumi
It’s that time of year once again when people are asking, “What’s your plan for 2018? What New Year’s resolutions did you make?”
My inner Sassy Girl is tempted to reply: “I’m giving up pinochle.” Or, “I’m swearing off glyphosate as a salad dressing.” But as most of these folks are friends (let’s face it—who else really cares what’s going on with you?), I give them the straight truth with a solemn face: I didn’t make any resolutions. I don’t have a plan.
Which is just a tiny bit disingenuous because that is my plan.
Like 320 million other ordinary Americans, I’m always trying to figure out how to do this thing called Life. Lacking a roster of servants to do my bidding, and having never purchased a winning lottery ticket, I’m left to struggle with the eternal question: How the hell do I fit everything into the narrow confines of a 24-hour day? The stuff I’m passionate about—writing, family, political action. The daily drudgework like dishes and laundry. The unending avalanche of forms/bills/notices that if not filed/paid/answered may result in a stiff penalty. Or a short jail sentence.
And sometimes I just need to sleep.
The single uniting force in the human race appears to be our mania for resolutions. If we share nothing else, come January 1, we all want to: 1) get in shape; 2) be more productive, and 3) manage the stress caused by #s 1 and 2.
Googling the subject, I see that 50 is THE number to shoot for this year. Fifty New Year’s resolutions came up more than once on my search. Ay caramba! Well, I suppose it seems less daunting than, say, 100, but it’s still madness. I mean, you’re gonna need a lot more than a Fitbit to keep track of that load. By the time I hit #16 (Get a Side Hustle) on the first 50-List, my head was exploding.
But it’s not just the number of resolutions these lists propose, it’s the scope. A second 50-list suggested the reader:
(#3) stop procrastinating—LOL, if we could do that, we wouldn’t need resolutions;
(#17) have better sex (Is there a meter for this? A checklist?);
(#22) get out of debt—has someone volunteered to pick up my tab?
For some reason, “drink more water” was a featured item on every list. Turn on the tap already.
Not every catalog of resolutions was so Herculean. Number one on Alexia Dellner’s list “Start your day with a really good stretch” felt both attainable and non-invasive.
Scroll down to #14: “Stop doing one thing.”
Ah, now we’re getting somewhere!
Andrea, dear soul, like a mom holding out dessert for last, dishes up major relief with #50: Cut yourself some slack.
Amen. That’s my kind of list. Stop doing. Lie down. Let sanity find you.
Sisyphus 0; Rock 100
The thing, as it turns out, is that though we’re resolution junkies on the front end, we suck at keeping them. It’s a true Sisyphean situation. The rock doesn’t just roll back down that hill. It flattens us. According to usnews.com, 80% of resolutions fail by the second week of February. All that remains is the $1,995 you still owe on that Peloton Indoor Exercise Bike.
Researchers at the University of Scranton don’t even give us that much staying power. They claim that the resolution success rate is in the single digits. Eight percent to be exact. People, I don’t have to tell you this is not a flattering portrait.
Or—and this is the explanation I favor—perhaps we were never meant to be like that Timex watch in the old ads. The one that takes a lickin’ (by an 18-wheeler!) and keeps on tickin’. We are human beings. We have needs: Food, water, sex, online solitaire.
According to the Huff Po, there are numerous reasons why we fail the resolutions test in such astounding numbers, but they basically boil down to the same thing: A serious lack of realism in the expectations department. Vowing “I’ll never eat sugar again when a) you love sweets, and b) you love sweets, is like swearing you’ll never take another breath until we have someone sane in the White House. However noble your intention, it’s a doomed mission from the start.
Case in point—one familiar to all writers—the ambitious plan to work on your novel 10 hours a day and/or resolving to pen 5,000 new words before each sunset. If you live in a monastery, where all you have to do is pray and someone prepares your meals, you might make it, but if you have a family, a job, a house, I can tell you from experience: It’s not happening. As Forbes noted: The average person has so many competing priorities that extreme life makeovers sink faster than the Titanic.
Enough Already with the Straitjackets
This post actually started with me considering a “plan” proposed by another self-employed blogger: Do one thing each day. Just that. This resolution grabbed my attention because it sounded so sane. Blog on Monday. Write on Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. Do household stuff and errands on Wednesday. Rest on the weekend. I could feel my anxiety level plummeting in the clarity and simplicity of the idea. Like the sound of those miniature desk fountains people buy to soothe themselves in the midst of utter chaos.
But then I realized that’s just trading one kind of to-do list for another, and to paraphrase Jackie DeShannon’s 1965 hit (“What the World Needs Now”): Lord, we don’t need another to-do list. Which is what resolutions really boil down to.
I’m a putterer. The thing I treasure most—what truly floats my boat—is to look at a day on the calendar and see nothing penciled in. This is a day to do with as I please, and I can make it all about one big project or several smaller projects. I can go to the gym or grab my honey and head out for a day of adventure. I can paint the kitchen or write a short story. Nothing kills a day for me more than getting up and realizing I’m straitjacketed into must-do tasks from dawn until lights out.
My plan—the one that isn’t a plan—is to minimize those strait-jacket days.
Last summer, I started cataloguing my books—all my books—a massive project that evolved out of a deep desire to stop purchasing copies of books I already own (I’m aware this makes sense only to my fellow book junkies). Whenever I got the chance, I would enter a shelf of titles/authors on my laptop. For someone who lives in a smallish house, I have an astounding number of books. Anyway, the project proceeded slowly. I was always promising myself I’d “reward” myself with cataloging a shelf after I wrote the next chapter of the novel or the next short story. After I’d penned the next blog post or researched a few more lit-mags and agents. After I finished weeding the garden or …
Surprise! The moment I could get to my cataloging project almost never happened. Ditto for playing my guitar or trawling for creative recipes. I was like the kid who dutifully eats her dinner day after day but never gets dessert. Feeling I had to cross off everything on a to-do list the length of War and Peace made me resentful. I felt like one of the Morlocks in The Time Machine, slaving away in the dark underground, the surface world something I glimpsed the light of only rarely.
So, I switched things up. In the week between Christmas and New Year’s this year, I gave myself a rare treat: I left my days completely open. This doesn’t mean I did nothing. I actually accomplished quite a few things, but I chose each activity in the moment, and only worked at a task until I felt my energy for it fading. The sense of possibility in each day energized me. Not having a to-do list calmed me. Gone was the stress of cramming, cramming, cramming. As my resentment faded, my focus sharpened. I finished the cataloging project (yay!). I also wrote this post, penned several new chapters of my novel and revised others, cleaned out dresser drawers, read one book and started another, watched several movies, cleared the mess on my desk, caught up with all my correspondence. All without forcing or fretting or rush.
A Different Kind of List
As someone who has earned a living writing and editing for much of my adult life, I’m no stranger to deadlines, and I’ve never missed one. But I don’t use a list to whip me to the finish line. Instead, I look at the scope of a project, estimate the total number of half-day units it will take to complete, add 2-4 more units because you never know what surprises lurk, in the project itself or in life, and count backward from the due date. I like the flexibility of this system. It leaves me time to write fiction. It allows me to work all day one day and skip the next if circumstances demand it or I’m just chomping at the bit for some free rein.
But we’re all individuals, so if you feel naked without a list (or a resolution), resolve to try this one: The Got-Done List. Got-done lists are not about the non-stop push to cross off task after task. They’re not about the relentless spur in the side that keeps you running until you drop, always short of some hoped-for finish line.
In her book Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time, Brigid Schulte talks about the weight many of us suffer from overloaded to-do lists, how it steals our happiness, slows our productivity, and damages our health. Schulte calls this state “The Overwhelm.” Got-done lists are about throwing off that weight and celebrating what we did achieve rather than ruing what we haven’t (yet) accomplished.
Research supports Schulte’s claims. Studies find that focusing on what we have achieved motivates us, makes us more creative, enhances problem-solving, and just plain adds to our happiness.
“I spend a few minutes at the end of the day writing down what I accomplished successfully,” says Nada Arnot, chief marketing officer of Qubed Education. “It’s rewarding and empowering to focus on what I did, rather than on what I didn’t do, which can be both stressful and demoralizing.”
I hear you, Nada!
So I’m sticking to my plan that isn’t a plan. Following my heart and letting the dust bunnies blow where they may. I’ve got living to do.
(Crank this one to the rafters and never forget what it is to hold the possibilities of your life in your hands.)