How to start this new year right

Put down your resolutions for a minute and think about what you did well last year

Congratulations! You've (almost) made it to a whole new year. And given 2018, that's no small feat!

Every year for the past decade, maybe more, I've written a list of things I want to accomplish in the year to come. It's become a habit, and every once in a while, it seems to have an effect. One year the list said "book," "chair," and "credit cards :(," and guess what? I sold a book, I bought a chair, and I can't remember what happened with the credit cards. Maybe I paid them off only to accrue new debt, and, whoops, it's time to put "credit cards :(" on my list again, along with everything else I want to fix: not eating perfectly healthily (or healthily at all), not exercising at least five times a week, not weighing the right amount (whatever that is), not doing enough volunteer work to make an appreciable difference/save the world, and definitely, definitely, drinking too much on more than one occasion. I haven't written enough books or enough columns or enough reported articles; as for the ones I did write, they should have been better. I blew off too many deadlines, offended too many editors, wasn't funny or smart or fast or successful enough. I was cranky far too often. I spent too much time frittering away my energies and emotions on stupid stuff. I definitely spent too much time getting angry while reading Twitter. I should have invested. I should have put more into my retirement plan. I shouldn't have bought so many on-sale yoga pants. I should have cleaned that chair I bought. It's pretty dirty now.

There is something so American about New Year's resolutions, this "tradition, most common in the Western Hemisphere but also found in the Eastern Hemisphere, in which a person resolves to change an undesired trait or behavior, to accomplish a personal goal or otherwise improve their life," Wikipedia says. By essence, resolution-making focuses on the negative: What in this moment or in the entire history of the year that's passing us by either like a flash of light or very slow-moving molasses can you identify that you want to do better? And what, when you fail to accomplish this thing, because maybe it was impossible in the first place and certainly the numbers were not in your favor, can you also feel badly about, a compounded whammy of failure and regret?

If you are me, or someone like me, the list is endless. It's easy to think about what you want to improve: how many more books you want to read next year, how much more fish you'd like to cook (but only the sustainable kind, and never with too much mercury), how much cleaner and clutter-free you want to keep the space you call home. How much more you want to DO, and how guilty you feel for all of these changes you should have already made, if you were a human with any value whatsoever in society.

In a goal-focused life, you can never simply be. You must always aspire; you must constantly grow and learn and accrue and be better, because look at everyone else out there doing more than you are! If they're doing it, shouldn't you, too? Are you just lazy, or worse, incompetent? Perhaps this is why the lists of good potential resolutions abound — in case you can't figure one out for yourself, in case you need one that's already been vetted as doable, and therefore less likely to cause self-flagellation — and why the service pieces about how to make good resolutions, and how to keep them, do, too. Dear lord, it's exhausting, all this self-improvement. It kind of makes you feel … terrible.

And yet, for many of us, it's far harder to think about what you've been doing right. Surely you have a few of those! Sit with them for a moment. Hold them close and cuddle them like tiny, sweet puppies! They might be huge accolades, big wins you've worked on for years. Or maybe they're simpler, events in life that weren't as bad as you expected, that you don't even hate yourself for, that maybe even marked a change or a small shift toward something better than before.

I went back through my calendar to find some of my own. Here is a selection:

1. In January 2018, I purchased new bras. This is no small accomplishment. I'd put it off for several years, because bra-shopping is one of the most nonviolent yet traumatic experiences one may have in modern society (akin to swimsuit shopping or jeans-purchasing). Having done it in 2018, I now can put it off again for at least two years, or until the new bras fall apart. Yay, me.

2. In March 2018, I canceled cable, AND I returned my DVR to Time Warner. And I didn't even yell at anyone while doing so.

3. In April 2018, I did my taxes. Granted, this happens yearly, but still, it's accolade-worthy.

4. In May 2018, I told someone off I'd been wanting to tell off for a very long time for an injustice they'd committed, but in a relatively calm and crisp, authoritative manner, and boy, did it feel great.

5. I worked on four different books, and one is now in the world, an entity of its own, and now I also have a collection of half-finished things in the works and doesn't that make a person closer to finishing at least one of them? I think so.

6. In June 2018, I went with a significant other to Ikea AND purchased two couches AND didn't break up. (He probably gets more credit for this than I do.) Both of the couches remain in use.

7. I relearned how to drive, and in November, I leased my first car. A true joy in this moment was finding out that my license plate says "JEM" on it.

8. Throughout the year I hosted at least 10 overnight guests and two of them were my parents and no one killed each other.

9. Throughout the year I interviewed at least 100 different people for various stories, and I survived not only that but also listening to those recorded interviews, and, mostly, turning in the articles pretty much/sort of on time.

10. In December, I cooked fish!

Can I do better next year? Sure. But who cares, because I can also do worse. My point is that as you hurtle toward the next arbitrary division of time, it behooves you to think about the good, and not just the could-be-better. And the small things are worth celebrating just as much as the big things.

So, when it comes to resolutions, I'm going into 2019 with one thing on my list: Being a little kinder to myself, and to everyone else out there who needs it. It's not always about being better. It's about being fine.


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