This article was originally written for The Ascent.
Since the age of 6, I have kept a notebook almost every day.
At times, it’s been a meticulous record of everything that happens in my life. At others, as is the case now, it’s mostly practical — to do lists, plans, notes, lists and the like.
The notebooks have taken every conceivable form, from crisp Moleskines to cheap, flimsy waiters’ pads, from creative with illustrations and adornments, to plain black pen on paper, from neat and categorised, to chaotic and scrambled. The words within cover everything, everyone.
Most are gone. Burnt in fits of rage, thrown away, shredded, lost.
But if you were to perform some magical thematic analysis of 15 years worth of notebooks, literally hundreds of them lost in the ether, you’d find one stark, consistent, unwavering theme. One topic repeated with clockwork regularity. One crystalline thread interwoven through all the growing and moving and ageing and gaining and losing.
Every notebook contains, sometimes only a few times, sometimes intermittently, sometimes on almost every page, the same thing in a thousand forms.
First, a detailed analysis of what I was doing wrong with my life
— a list of character traits proving problematic, bad eating habits, sleeping patterns, media consumption, unproductivity, struggles with people, failure to write or read, negative thinking habits, addictions, and so on.
Then, a plan for changing.
A vision of how everything should be and the steps to get there.Sometimes lofty, sometimes realistic. Trying to change one thing or everything. Hopeful, pessimistic, positive, wishful.
Looking back, the wording is frighteningly repetitive. There’s always a declaration, a line drawn in the sand, an absolute statement.
This changes. Today. Tonight. Tomorrow. Now. For good. Forever. For real. This can’t keep happening. This can’t stay this way. I need to change. I need to get better. I need to stop. I can’t continue like this. I can’t let this be my life. I can’t keep doing this.
Put all those lines in the sand together, end to end and they’d stretch the moon and back.
All those plans, regimes, assertions, diagrams, blueprints, roadmaps, delineations, graphs, goals, delineations, strategies, game plans, proposals, systems and outlines.
New notebooks purchased, classes taken, speeches listened to, films watched, books read, studies studied. Again and again: this is what’s wrong with me / my life. This is how I can change it. I need to be nicer / kinder / healthier / more productive / more generous / more open / better.
Call it self-obsession if you will. People often describe self-improvement as selfish. Which is strange because there’s nothing less selfish than wanting to be more able to have a positive impact on the world, than wanting to be a better version of yourself. You owe that to the world. It’s far from selfish. A rising tide lifts all boats and all that.
Someone once told me that if I didn’t like an aspect of my self, I should either accept it or change it.
Perhaps it’s telling that they were, by the way, an unmitigated douchebag. I don’t think anyone who has ever made a serious effort to improve could take such a simplistic view.
Change is hard. Getting better is hard. It’s a universal, life-long, day by day process.
You don’t get holidays from being a better person. You don’t get a clear pay off in the short-term. If you’re not religious (and I’m not), you can’t even view it as the route to a better afterlife, to a tangible reward.
You just grind it out and sometimes forget what you’re even doing it for and get mad that other people don’t seem to be fighting so fucking hard just to get through the day without doing X / not doing Y and who are you even doing this for and why are you doing this when life is finite and this is all so dumb.
If, for instance, you’ve ever battled an addiction (or even tried to quit something addictive on a low-level, like caffeine or social media) you’ll know that the initial choice is easy to make. You recognise it’s having a detrimental effect on your life, or that quitting it might have a positive effect. You decide to do just that. Quit. Now.
At first, that surge of motivation and determination carries you through. Maybe you tell people around you about the decision to quit and they’re wonderfully supportive. Each time you resist, you feel stronger.
With time, it gets easier. Then, inexplicably, there’s a point where it gets harder. You have to keep on making that decision again and again. People forget or assume you’re fine so the support disappears.
That’s when it’s easiest to kid yourself that you can do it just this once, in moderation, because normal people do, right? Wrong. You don’t get to be normal. Sorry. You don’t get to take your eyes off the road or everything blows up. Not for a minute.
In short, no finish line. That’s what you see again and again in my notebooks. I’d do whatever I was trying to do for a while, sometimes a long while. But then I’d get overwhelmed by the sense that I was just leaving this thing behind for good, and self-sabotage. Back track.
But I don’t think change happens in the way we expect. And here’s a slightly gross anecdote about that.
I started biting my nails when I was practically a baby and didn’t stop until earlier this year. When I say I ‘bit my nails’ I mean that I gnawed off the entire nail. Literally. I had no nails. My fingertips bled all the time. I couldn’t open cans or peel off plastic packaging and struggled to pick up small objects.
To the outsider, nail-biting seems like the most pointless, gross, idiotic habit ever. But it was a habit I picked up at a time where I was subject to a lot of stress and wasn’t old enough to know how to manage it or find outlets for it. And the habit stuck, becoming completely ingrained by the time I was old enough to try changing it.
Then, around May this year, I decided the shame and self-hatred wasn’t helping. I’d tried a hundred times and gotten nowhere. Seeing as I had bigger issues to deal with and biting my nails wasn’t going to kill me, it was time to accept and stop letting it impact my self-worth.
You know where this goes. Because you’ve probably experienced the same phenomenon yourself. The nail-biting stopped. I can open cans now. It feels amazing.
The same is true for most of the other changes I’ve made. They didn’t happen after I dramatically drew a line in the sand. They happened when I accepted the current state of affairs. When I changed my environment, or made it easier for myself. Most important, when I divorced the change from the shame inherent in all those plans and just got on with it.
All that planning, did any of it work?
If you plot everything on a graph, all the little metrics combined to form one, would it trend upwards? How much could be credited to simple growing up, how much to active effort?
It’s hard to say. That’s the problem with the charade of self-improvement.Few aspects are truly measurable and few of us have reliable long-term measurements. Even if we do, we improve across some areas, worsen in others, improve for a while then backslide, advance in sudden leaps. Days are variable, so are weeks, months, years. And a life can never be measured in the numerical sense.
Sometimes, we draw lines in the sand and the wind doesn’t blow them away. Yet mostly, when we’re ready to change, the line is superfluous. It’s a reminder, not a starting line. It’s a declaration, not a driver. It comes after acceptance, not before.
But, to quote a Bright Eyes song (because I’m incapable of not quoting Bright Eyes in anything I write): A line allows progress. A circle does not.