I’ve grown to hate new year’s resolutions, because they’re invariably too ambitious, vague, and easy to shirk. It’s all too familiar and frustrating: the abandoned gym membership, the unused Rosetta Stone package, the new musical instrument that’s still in its case six months later, etc., etc. And I’m speaking as a victim here. I’ve been seduced, groomed, suckered and abused by the self-improvement industry nine ways to sunday. I wised up eventually, but only after I’d spent too much of my earnings on hobbies and skills that never truly materialised.
I now prefer to-do lists. (I’m not splitting hairs, no, and yes, there is a distinction.) I find to-do lists to be more practical than resolutions simply because they’re so mundane. Resolutions have a grand, life-altering quality to them, whereas to-do lists are purely administrative. Minimal ambition = minimal anxiety. This, to me, makes to-do lists more approachable.
I like lists containing easy, actionable items that build up imperceptibly, tricking me into hitting my grander goals. I set these to relaxed, unthreatening timelines. And since I’m only answerable to me, I always forgive myself if I don’t get all the way to the end of my list come December. (My new mantra is to embrace my failures and renounce all guilt. It’s been very freeing.)
Last year, I had set four big goals for myself: to read more, to write more, to get better at playing guitar, and to dedicate some time each day to just sit back and space out. I didn’t give myself a lot to do in the first two instances, except to remind myself periodically to carve out time for each. I’d decided in advance that my primary focus for 2019 would be music.
Here’s the music-learning list I made last January:
1. Try and practice for at least 20 minutes each day. (No pressure.)
2. Get comfortable with open chords by Feb. ’19
3. Learn one pattern each for the minor and major pentatonic scales by March ’19
4. Learn all notes of one key (A/E) by April ’19
5. Understand the basic theory of modes by April ’19
6. Play as often as possible. Keep the guitar next to the desk, within reach.
7. Visualise and get comfy with the fretboard layout by Dec. ’19
1. Practice and acquire better breath control by Feb. ’19
2. Learn the layout and notes on the A harp by March ’19
3. Perfect 3rd position playing by June ’19
4. Learn 10 new turnarounds by Dec. ’19
5. Attempt more jazz
I pinned this ^ directly above my work desk, so it would be hard to evade. Here’s how the list panned out:
I ended up discarding my harmonica goals altogether, a few months down the line, because I was getting a ton of practice at weekly jams with my various bands (all four have since fizzled out, alas). There’s really no substitute for playing with other musicians, for learning with a real-world context, and I was lucky to have access to this luxury all through 2019.
On the guitar list, I not only got through most of my tasks without trouble, but I also managed to supplement my practice schedule with a couple of months of one-on-one lessons with a friend who’s a professional guitarist, which strengthened my rudiments (especially strumming techniques) immeasurably. By the end of the year, I had a repertoire of ten or eleven songs that I could play decently; I’d figured out the blues scale well enough to play intermediate-level solos across the fretboard in any given key; I’d learned a few flat-picking patterns, better bends, pull-offs, hammer-ons and other techniques to spice up my strumming; and I’d finally understood how to practically apply the circle of fifths. Not too shabby, considering I’d started out being only able to improvise a little blues in E, and to play four or five basic open chords.
This year, now that my daily guitar practice happens more or less on autopilot, I’ve decided to focus my annual to-do list on reanimating my zombie reading and writing habits. Rather than go into the many reasons for setting such a goal, I’m simply going to trust your perspicacity and share my lists with you as is (this is also for my own benefit — putting them up so publicly will, I hope, embarrass me into action):
Reading in 2020
1. Identify ten or fifteen books to read during the first four months of the year [this part is done — ref. the new book pile in the photo above], and attempt to read them all. Get at least halfway through each book before giving up!
2. Set the customary GoodReads reading challenge of a 100 books. Try and achieve at least 70% of this goal. (No pressure.)
3. Listen to more audiobooks (rather than music or podcasts) during long walks. Schedule four such walks per week.
4. Read for at least four or five hours each week. This is NOT asking for too much. (There are 168 hours in a week!)
Writing in 2020
1. Try and write for at least five hours per week, divided up based on convenience and daily demands. (WRITE NEW MATERIAL, instead of endlessly plotting or rewriting existing chapters.) Five hours a week REALLY ISN’T asking for too much. (There are 168 hours in a week!) Stock-take by Feb. end, by which time at least three new chapters should be completed. (No pressure.)
2. Preface each writing session with a ten-minute meditation, in order to create a tiny buffer between this hour and all the other distractions of the day. Spend the first few minutes jotting down a brief outline of what to write in that session. Put down pen and zone out for a few minutes, to let that outline take vivid form in the imagination. Now WRITE.
3. Write without pausing, without stopping to research or rewrite stuff, tempting though that might be. And when the momentum starts to flag, take a breather, jot down ideas for how to proceed from this point, STOP WRITING, and move on with the day. (Resume tomorrow.)
4. Start pitching feature articles to periodicals again. (It’s never too late to revive lapsed skills.) Have something published by April / May.
5. Complete and refine all pending poetry ideas. Take it one at a time. Relax and enjoy the process. Write on weekends only, for two hours per week.
6. For the love of all things holy, please complete and send out pending assignments / manuscripts, you lazy bastard.
7. Hot tip: since oversharing book-related plans and narratives always seems to lead to insecurity and paralysis, don’t talk about the work, and just work.
Keen readers will note that I haven’t included health goals in any of these lists. It’s definitely a major concern for this year, as well as the decade ahead. I’ve been growing a sizeable midsection, my sinuses are chronically fucked, and my joints are always on the verge of seizing. I’m making a list to tackle these problems too, but (in the spirit of point 7 ^ in my writing list) its contents are none of your goddamn business 🙂
What are your goals for 2020? What are you reading these days? Do you believe in scheduling the good habits you want to assimilate? Do you prefer resolutions or lists? Does it matter? Will any of us survive long enough to see our plans implemented? Will we learn to love the bomb? (Can we please just let the drones fight it out?) Can AI create better politicians? Will Disney kidnap Martin Scorsese and force him to make a superhero film? Can we unleash graffiti artists on all the bleached corals? Is Elon Musk the first human clone? So many questions…
If you have any compelling methods or theories with regard to any of the above, please write in and tell me. (No pressure.)