On New Year’s Resolutions and Noticing
NO SMART GOALS, NO MASTERS
Once upon a time, I loved New Year’s Resolutions. As a lifelong optimizer and lover of self-help books, January always felt like a fresh start, a blank slate, the perfect time to reinvent myself and finally do all the things that would make me My Absolute Best. I created lists, schedules, and, of course, a metric shit-ton of SMART goals.
For the uninitiated or self-help averse, SMART goals are a way to establish clear outcomes and time-lines for your innermost desires. SMART is an acronym: Each letter represents a different way to quantify a goal so that it, theoretically, becomes easier to achieve. According to this framework, goals should be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. If you read even more self-help books, you’ll realize that not only should you set goals for the year ahead, but for your life ahead, and thus should create a framework of short, medium, and long-term tasks to accomplish, in order to optimize the shit out of your life and give you Purpose.
The thing about goals that no book or coach ever seems to consider is that it is difficult enough to just live as a regular person under the oppressive forces of capitalism, let alone improve yourself under them, and if you don’t have the resources of money or time, you’re inherently set up to fail. Still, that never stopped me from trying. For years, January rolled around and I envisioned a whole new version of myself, a person who exercised more, and practiced guitar regularly, and didn’t look at Twitter every hour. For a while, it would work. I got a GoodLife membership. I got a new guitar. I installed social media blockers on my laptop and my cell phone. And yet, even if I kept it up for a while, I could never keep it up for very long.
At the start of 2020, I decided to do something I had never done before: Make no SMART goals for the year ahead. Instead of filling out long, detailed routines for the months before me in my Passion Planner, an agenda that allowed me to micro-manage my life in colour-coded, half-hour increments that ultimately served to worsen my anxious perfectionism to depths previously unknown, I filled out the first pages in my recently purchased Many Moons Planner, an agenda that had less to do with linear time than it did with what astrological sign the current moon phase was in. The pages still asked for goals, but I made them purposefully vague, almost erotically reveling in how unspecific they were, how none of them had any end in sight. “Walk the dog,” “Pay attention to body,” “Prioritize writing,” “Prioritize friendship,” “Show up to protests.” The last, and ultimately most crucial intention written was written at the very end: “Embrace what is.”
A bit of background. 2019 was the most difficult year of my life (and, mind you, there have been some difficult years). Cliff’s Notes version: Major break-up, major family death. Starting a new job, my highest-paying ever, only to quit it seven weeks later due to severe emotional stress. Moving in with my mom not once, but twice in the span of months. It was, to put it simply, A Bad Fucking Time.
And yet, in the complete breakdown of my life, there were some good things. The most important was that I started going to therapy consistently for the first time in a long time. In therapy, I realized that I had always tried to control the future since I was petrified of the uncertainty of it. My highlighted-to-death and crossed-out planner, which I long lauded as proof of my inherent productivity and therefore goodness, was nothing but a symptom of anxiety and perfectionism. My life exploded and at the end of it, all I could do was admit that all the control I thought I had over it - all the lists, and schedules, and SMART goals - were nothing but an illusion bent on keeping from noticing what was actually here, now.
Embracing non-specific intentions helped me deal with pandemic immeasurably. In the middle of March, shortly after the first lockdown began, I threw out several months worth of my calendar, detailing events that were suddenly, now, not going to happen any time soon: Mannequin Pussy in Montreal on March 15th and Green Day at the Roger’s Centre in Toronto five days after my 25th birthday. These things were canceled, just like life, itself was canceled, or at least, put on an unending pause.
In the complete dissolution of plans and schedules of all kinds, I revisited my intentions for the year, trying to get outside with the dog, trying to notice when my limbs felt stiff, trying to still write, even when it all felt awful. It was difficult, and my success varied dramatically from day-to-day, but my vague goals provided me with a sense of checking in and connecting with myself in a way I never experienced when my goals were far more measurable, specific, and time-oriented.
I’ve long cut myself off from reading self-help books. While some have their merits, I’ve forced myself to admit that they’re no good for me, that they keep me in a constant loop of negative optimization, that if I just try it like how this person describes, surely my life will improve. I broke my ban during the last week of 2020, reading Getting to Center by Marlee Grace, an extremely vague book about what it means to re-centre in the personal practices of your life. Unlike SMART goals, which advocate for a clear beginning, middle and end, Grace writes how there is never an end, there is only the centre, and if you fall off of whatever your intention is, you can always try again, and again, and again.
When January came around this year, I did my best to avoid the usual feelings, the impulse to start over completely, to be the best version of myself. I didn’t make any SMART goals this year, or any of the usual New Year’s Resolutions either. Instead, I wrote down another vague list of things I wanted to accomplish: “Only look at one screen at a time” and “Don’t attach yourself to outcomes” are the two main ones.
I’ve been doing okay with both of them, but I think the more important thing is that I’m noticing where I am, when I am, a habit that isn’t measurable or time-oriented, but that is infinitely more invaluable.
What I’m Reading: I finished two mind-boggling books, Earthlings by Sayaka Murata and Trust Exercise by Susan Choi. Both had quite a few “WTF???!!!” moments, which honestly makes me a bit reluctant to recommend either. If you like horror, read Earthlings, and if you like meta-fiction, read Trust Exercise. Otherwise, you’re probably best leaving them both on the shelf.
What I’m Watching: I had a very thrilling-for-a-pandemic weekend of renting not one, but TWO recently-released films: Sound of Metal directed by Darius Marder and Promising Young Woman directed by Emerald Fennell. Both were intense, bold, and prompted MUCH discussion among my boyfriend and I after watching.
What I’m Listening To: Canadian writer Hazel Jane Plante has a brand new podcast called T4T, about writing while trans (the first episode interviews Casey Plett). I also watched the Bee Gees documentary, How To Mend a Broken Heart, which made me cry THREE times despite not going into it as a Bee Gees fan. I have been blasting “Tragedy” on repeat ever since.
What I’m Cooking: I made the TikTok potatoes. They’re great! I also made this Internet-famous pasta sauce which is deceptively simple and delicious.
Where I’m Donating: Lots of calls for mutual aid in the Ottawa area happening right now. Check out Food Not Bombs Ottawa and Ottawa Street Medics, and send a few e-transfers if you’re able to.
Thank you for indulging me in this more personal newsletter. My (very vague, certainly not SMART) goal for this newsletter is to share more short pieces like this, in addition to culture writing. The next newsletter will drop around Feb. 17. Please share, comment, like, and subscribe if you enjoyed it. Stay safe, stay well.