“Document the moments you feel most in love with yourself—what you’re wearing, who you’re around, what you’re doing. Recreate and repeat.”
— Warsan Shire
It’s that time of year. The first day of the next 365, when we all resolve to become that better version of ourselves we wish to be. We start diets. We join gyms. We quit smoking. We challenge ourselves to work harder, create more, reach for that unachievable goal, that impossible dream somewhere, someday.
I’d love to join you all in these grand goals, but if I’ve learned nothing else these past couple of years, it’s that the best way to keep from breaking a promise to yourself is not to make one at all.
I, admittedly, have broken a lot of promises, and the disappointments have piled high. So, this year, I am making no such promises.
It’s not that I don’t trust myself. Moreso, it just feels cruel to hold the future me to present passions. I put my future self in a box when I do this. I make a servant out of her and don’t think for one second about what she might want when her time comes. If I’ve learned a second thing these past years, it’s that present needs always trump past desires.
Life never looks the way you planned it to. Most of my days go off the rails within the first few hours and by the time I can catch my breath, the to-do list, the habit trackers, and the writing are far forgotten about. All I want then is to rest, to be with my wife, to lose myself in social media, in another episode, in a good night’s sleep.
There’s never time for what I wanted in the first place. There’s never time for all those grad goals and habit changes. And slowly, slowly, the person you were when you made those plans changes. Your wants change, but you can’t give up, you can’t fail, so you force yourself to chase a fading dream.
Another pandemic lesson: New year’s resolutions inevitably lead to future feelings of entrapment or future feelings of failure because we don’t leave any room for change.
This year, I have very few resolutions. I actually have only one. Pay attention to the present.
This year I’m asking that I only notice the present and do what feels right in that moment. On the surface, this seems counterintuitive. There have been plenty of nows in which I have done exactly the wrong thing. I have wasted time. I have done the opposite of what I wanted. Looking back, the mistake wasn’t choosing wrong, it was giving up the choice entirely.
This year, I’m not looking forward, and I’m not looking back. I am not wishing nor am I regretting. I am learning and shifting. I am choosing.
I’m giving myself permission to want something different and asking only that I stay true to that. The hard part is knowing what you really want and you cannot see it with time pressing in on both sides. The present has to get bigger, but as the world tilts further and further toward chaos, it gets harder to stay in each moment.
Free will is a spectrum and our capacity to choose waxes and wanes with stress, emotion, and information. For the past two years, the world has been thrown into utter disarray. For the past two years, I have felt my stress levels rise, my energy levels decline, and misinformation has overwhelmed me. That isn’t even accounting for all the loss.
Under those conditions, how can I promise to work out, eat right, or write? Under those conditions, how can I expect to have any sense of willpower?
You cannot account for the impact that pandemics and politics will have on the personal. You cannot know when your whole world will be turned upside down or emptied of everything that gives it light. What you can do is observe. What you can do is ask. What you can do is make sure you are truly giving yourself what you need now.
Sometimes that is doing nothing, but more often, what you need is to do something.
The what of my resolution boils down to mindfulness, a practice that sounds simple but is harder than it seems. The how of my resolution might sound complex, but it comes as easy to me as breathing.
All my life I have kept a journal. Since I was a teenager, my notebooks have been a place to explore and explain myself to myself in a way I can understand. These diaries were often the closest thing I had to a friend, and I have filled many with bits of small talk, encouragement, and tough love. I would not be who I am, I might not be at all if not for those blank pages being so patient with me.
But life changed, obligations grew, I become an adult and told myself to leave childish things behind. I turned to those pages less and less and without a past self to talk with, to egg me on or offer advice, I have felt more and more untethered in time.
This year I want to return to these pages but this time with the purpose: noticing. A journal is a place to pour the present into. It’s a place to ask: How have I changed? Do I want this? What can I do right now? Social media won’t give you that. Nothing on your phone will. You have to slow down. You have to look, and it can take many ways of writing to see.
Last year I bought a planner hoping it would help me keep my focus, but that wasn’t the best way for me. Turns out I want to do the same things every day and none of it is enough for a planner. So, this year I’m trying something different. I took the lead of one of my favorite writers and artists, Austin Kleon, and bought another planner, but not to track all the things I want to do, but to track all the things I have done. A logbook.
There are other notebooks for other things too, lists and fragments of all kinds, and each carries its own part of me in it. Each is a record of where I have been and a map of where I am going, and all it takes is to record the present.
I’m also starting a sketchbook this year. There are some things in life language is too poor at capturing. Our eyes are the primary way we take in the world and our minds alter the image to highlight what is important. Memory makes its cut and its additions, reinterprets and feeds the new picture back. Each time it’s pulled up, it’s different. Each time you pull it up, you are too. I’d like to get back to capturing these iterations again.
There are also apps and of course, this blog, all of it part of an interconnected system for seeing myself, my world, and working out what my work actually is. All of it is only a way for the subconscious and the conscious to circle around, to start and save their conversations that say one thing in the moment and another in a different time.
These words are the well of my life and I don’t want to lose any more of either.
It sounds simple, just write it down, but humans are notoriously bad at noticing the present, let alone recording it with pen and paper. We’re too busy reliving the past—when we aren’t avoiding it that is—or dreaming up an impossible future neither of which I want to do here because neither has ever led to any real accomplishment.
This leads me to one last hard lesson I am bringing with me to the new year: You cannot change what you do without changing who you are.
This may be hard to hear, but the person you are right now does not want to eat right, exercise, quit smoking, start a new hobby, or write that book. The person you are right now wants to be the kind of person who wants to do those things.
I’m not saying this to shame. I’m saying it to start the year off with the right mindset. Harsh truths are needed sometimes. I am not yet the kind of person who wants to write every day, who wants to write well, who wants to write thought-provoking essays. My first ambition is simply to be her.
And I suppose this is no new revelation, only a different way of saying habit-forming.
I have poor habits right now. I have no discipline. I am often short-sighted. That’s hard to say and harder to hear, but you have to accept where you are in order to get anywhere else, right?
My hope is that, like tracking your calorie intake, the act of having to write it down will be enough to force the right choice, but I’m taking it to an extreme. I’m recording it all, thoughts I have, movies I watch, people I meet, and conversations I overhear. I want to see what simply seeing will get me.
No grand promises and no lofty goals this time around, just seeing and recording, just pen and paper. In 2022, as in any year, nothing will be for certain, but every day means something. The course can always change, but the future has to go somewhere. How we spend our days is how we spend our life and I won’t let either slip away.