The other day I sorted through five years of weekly to-do lists, which were almost identical to each other except for the date.
There were items I had been attempting to address for years, but somehow I had never actually done any of them to the point where they didn’t need to be on a list any more.
You may have experienced this familiar cycle. On a weekend, after a disappointing week, you write out a list of things you’re going to start doing, for real this time, on Monday. Working out. Practicing an instrument. Writing a bit every day. Reading a bit every day. Initiating plans with friends more often. Getting organized.
You’ve probably done a lot of each of these things at some point, even regularly for a while, yet for all their persistence in your mind they never really established themselves in your routine. You keep writing them down because you’re not prepared to let go of the idea that you will one day be fit, organized, and good at what you want to be good at.
When you’ve been writing down the same resolutions for years and they’re just not happening, two ugly possibilities may come into focus. Either these pursuits are not that important to you, or they’re too hard for you to pull off.
Chances are neither is true. The problem isn’t that they’re too hard or not important enough, it’s the opposite. They’re all perfectly doable, and we know that because other ordinary people do them. And they’re so important to us that we never put down any of them completely. We can’t accept any of these goals as optional, so we think it’s reasonable to progress a little bit with each at the same time. Just a ten minute workout every day. Just 250 words before breakfast. Reach out to one friend a week. Meditate for just five minutes.
The point is to achieve “balance”, which is a concept we seem to value even if we can’t really say why. It seems reasonable to presume that if the person you want to be does all these things, you must always be doing these things, otherwise you’ll never get there.
I think I have finally accepted that this doesn’t work. It dilutes your resolve too much. There’s never enough progress in any area to keep your enthusiasm renewed, and there’s a much greater chance of missing your standards.
It makes way more sense to keep most of your plans for improvement boxed and shelved at any given time. Pick just a few, maybe just one, to take out of the box. And do something significant with it.
On the others, don’t worry about making even the smallest amounts of progress, and don’t worry about deciding when you will get to them. If they’re truly important then they deserve a more undivided effort.
Let your priorities cycle, so that everything that’s truly important gets to be at the center of your life for a time.
Give the important things a year of their own
In 2012, after a magical trip to New York City, I came home to my quiet suburban apartment, and I couldn’t stand it. My whole life suddenly felt like it was too far from the action. I wanted to become a much more social person than I ever had been. I moved to the busiest area of town. I made a ton of friends that summer, and went to a lot of parties. I learned how to mingle, host, initiate plans and do it all without being nervous.
But I didn’t do a whole lot else during that time. I didn’t pick up the guitar much, I didn’t write all that much, I didn’t try to get into great shape and I didn’t try to get better at my job.
A year and a half later, I’m pretty dormant socially. I spend most of my time at my desk and I take a lot of walks. I see my girlfriend a few times a week and other friends maybe once a week.
This current passivity towards relationships doesn’t reflect my overall values. I love people, and my long term vision for myself is a well-connected person that spends a lot of time visiting. In the past I would have felt like there’s something wrong with this, because obviously I’m scoring pretty low in an area I know is important. There’s no balance.
But if balance is necessary (and is it?) then I will let it occur over a number of years, rather than over my daily or weekly routine. If I can spent ten years giving ten areas of life each a highly focused year, I will be vastly better at all of those things than I would be if I worked on all those areas at once, even if I did manage them well.
Even though I’m kind of a hermit this year, last year’s whirlwind of socializing left me permanently unafraid to talk to strangers, and altogether more relaxed even when I’m alone. I gained so much that year and I can put it to use whenever I want. The more intense your periods of focus, the more you get to keep from them.
There’s a natural friction between what we’re doing and what we could be doing, so if you completely shut down some of the options, you reduce the resistance to fully engaging the others. Doing that requires the conscious granting of permission to let most areas lie fallow for a bit, even for a year or two.
This is against the natural impulse to perpetually worry about everything that’s important. We have to assure ourselves that it’s still important even while it’s dormant. If it’s truly important, then it deserves dedication, and dedication requires that we separate it from other dedicated pursuits.
Right now I want my day-to-day life to consist of little more than advancing in three areas: building my livelihood as a writer, reading as much as I can, and becoming a more mindful person. Those bases I can really cover. They reinforce each other well. I’m giving myself permission to let go of improving anything else for now.
I don’t mean that I’ve become obsessed. I still do my laundry, I still get exercise, I still have fun. But French will wait. Big travel plans will wait. The Great Novel will wait. They each deserve their own intensive period, and the guy taking them on will be more experienced, better read and a lot more focused.
You could call this a minimalist attitude to growth, and I think that’s fair. It has similar benefits to reducing your possessions: your gratitude and your attention are both split fewer ways so the overall experience is richer.
It’s also just a much more efficient way to grow. I’m a lot better a writer than I was only a few months ago, because I’m focused on it and I’m doing a lot more of it. When I do decide to take the guitar seriously, I know that I’ll improve more in one year than I have in the last ten years. When I take on French again, I’ll make of a year of it and do it in France or Quebec.
Imagine the compound interest from a stack of years like that. If you’ve been trying to do everything, decide what you’re going focus on — and what you’re going to box up — for 2014.
Or to think of it a different way: what do you want to be much, much better at by 2015?