It was on December 29, just as I spent my last Amazon gift card and finally got tired of my mother’s fudge, that my internal voice awoke from its Holiday hibernation. Christmas wine and Clark Griswold’s antics in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation thankfully had managed to silence it for the last week, but it was back - familiar and amplified:
“Get off the couch, man - the Holidays are over,” it said. “2021 is coming, and you have to be better.”
I had never been one for New Year’s resolutions – the very phrase reminds me of those early-year gym goers in brand new track suits who’d steal my coveted treadmill on stormy days in January, only to quit running by February. But amid the COVID-19 pandemic alone, I found myself making enough resolutions to last me my next 25 years. In fact, becoming better at just about anything has been an obsession of mine since March.
I’m a journalist in my mid-twenties. When the pandemic cornered me inside my one-bedroom basement apartment in Toronto, I vowed to commit my newly-gained free time to self-improvement. I did so because it seemed like the best way to ensure my success inside whatever world might await me post-pandemic. And also because that stupid tweet about Shakespeare writing King Lear during the plague made me feel guilty for spending the entire third week of March re-watching Breaking Bad.
I set several goals in the spring, and they multiplied by the month. I vowed to spend my spare time getting healthy enough to race a marathon, reading about investing so that I can set my financial goals until 2030, growing my YouTube Channel, learning to grind my own coffee, and freelancing absolutely everywhere.
In my pursuits, I picked up a few good habits. I started going on regular morning walks, reading a book per week, and practicing the Wim Hof breathing method. Just recently I’ve learned that Wim Hof is in fact a world record-breaking athlete and not simply an onomatopoeia for the said breathing method (inhale WHIIIM, exhale HOFFFF).
But as weeks passed, my constant attempts at self-improvement started to backfire. How could I make a savings plan when I don’t know how much money I’m making? How can I target a race when I don’t even know if it will happen? Why am I even meditating?
I found myself multitasking too much. I listened to investment podcasts while getting groceries, only to later realize that I had retained almost nothing of the episode, and that I had bought the wrong kind of fish. I hit self-improvement rock bottom when I had to lie to my professors that the hissing sound coming from my Zoom screen emanated from a tea kettle, and not from the front wheel of the poorly-greased spin bike I was riding during class.
By the Holiday break, I felt tired, without having much to show for my efforts. So, I’ve resolved to break out of this trap before new year’s resolution season sends my tendencies into overdrive. So this year I’ve set “counter-resolutions” for January and beyond.
1-Don’t invent work where there is none – This year, in times when I had few obligations, I kept myself busy with futile tasks like rearranging my laptop folders, or putting four articles of clothing in the washing machine, just to feel productive. But while my mom would have been thrilled at how quickly I used the Tide Pods she sent me, my plan to stay busy slowly burned me out. This year, instead of forcing myself to be working on something, I’ll try to be grateful for days when I have nothing to do. Besides, I hear The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix is pretty good.
2-Be less time-driven in my pursuits. I thought that placing time limits on my goals would help me stay accountable. But coming up with proper timelines for projects in COVID times can feel impossible. Worse, failing to meet deadlines can lead to disappointment or, in my case, rushing through a project at the expense of its quality. Alex Hutchinson made a case for time-based goals when he wrote about Teleoanticipation: the science of finish lines that explains that mental comfort we feel when we know that a finish line is approaching (and conversely, the despair we can feel when we face temporally ambiguous tasks.) Yet, I’m noticing that my best projects of 2020 were those that were not rushed by a clear finish line.
3-Take time to reflect on what goals are truly important. I liked the idea of self-improvement so much that I struggled to focus on specific goals, and instead got carried away by the minutiae of self-improvement itself. But these morning walks, podcasts, meditation exercises and endless glasses of water should all be means to ends – not ends in themselves. Without a clear goal – like becoming a better runner, a better investor, a better writer – these improvement techniques did little for me.
I’m not saying that self-improvement is bad. Far from it – the ability to learn and reinvent oneself, I’d argue, is one of the best skills a millennial can have, especially as we face a growing gig economy and a quickly-changing world. If we spend all our days perusing Netflix and scrolling through Tik Tok instead of, say, learning how we work best, or getting our anxiety under control, we have no chance to succeed.
But we must self-improve tactfully. With patience, with kindness to ourselves, and with purpose. For me, that starts by taking my downtime to reflect on what things truly require my attention. And then and there, it was my family, their big screen TV and Chevy Chase.