New Years Resolutions: On Letting Go, or How to Calm a Fractured Mind

New Year Resolutions: On Letting Go, or How to Calm A Fractured Mind

Happy New Year. 

It’s the first Friday of 2020. A time when many people will be putting their brand new New Year resolutions to the test.

It’s also the first Friday of a new decade.

Do you approach this decade with hope and optimism, or do you approach it with fear and anxiety?

Happiness is the driving force of everything we do. From the big, once in a lifetime undertakings to the occasional (and occasionally shameful) shortcuts we take, happiness — love, belonging, acceptance — is somewhere at the root of all of it.

My own default mode — and now just at New Year’s — has always been fear and anxiety. Perhaps it’s generally the default mode of the greater part of humanity. My ancestors, and yours, the long, long list of them from way back when, were infused by fear and anxiety which gave them a caution that kept them alive and allowed me (and you) to be here, now, today.

So it’s facetious just to dismiss fear and anxiety and instead sing the praises of undiluted hope and optimism. Undiluted hope and optimism can get you killed in stupid ways. (Children’s books and television often have a way of distilling profound truth into disarming simplicity, and one of my favourite children’s TV segments of the past couple of years is Horrible Histories’ “Stupid Deaths”… Amongst the random accidents and terrible tragedies, there are many, many deaths arising from plain and ignominious stupidity, often with undiluted hope and optimism at the heart of it.)

Still, just because fear and anxiety serve survival of the species well, does this mean I must remain in thrall to them in the here and now?

No. I, we, must resist them. 

We must resist them in the knowledge that they are essential parts of being human.

We must resist them in the knowledge that they are impossible ever to fully overcome.

We must resist them in the knowledge — more than knowledge: conviction — in the absolute conviction that a life of peaceful mind, and calm in the moment, and occasional spontaneous bursts of untethered joy must also include resistance to the anxiety and fear that comes from our collective species hive mind way down in our brains’ amygdalas.

Fear and anxiety are generally the default mode of humanity. My ancestors, and yours, the long, long list of them from way back when, were infused by fear and anxiety which gave them a caution that kept them alive and allowed me (and you) to be here, now, today.

The fear and the anxiety come from the age-old species brain, the scientifically unknown and possibly unknowable organ that has, over a thousand generations or so and tens of thousands of years, perfectly honed the skill of seeking out dangers. Everywhere.

So our brains are, at a fundamental level, hardwired to seek out danger. 

The fear we feel is the fear of that danger, the threat to our survival and the survival of our progeny. 

The anxiety is something a little more complex, arising from the concerns that in our fallible and doomed humanity we will either do something or fail to do something that will keep us safe from that danger. 

This is the profound paradox of anxiety. We can do something, or we can not do something, but in both the doing and the not doing we are beset by dread about the uncertain future we have no way of controlling.

So as human beings, through the shared experiences of our thousand-generation-old ancestry, we’re hard-wired to seek out danger, hard-wired for fear and anxiety.

But layer on top of that thousand-generation-old human experience the assault on our senses that comes from everywhere in 2020.

For many of us, our senses are massaged by external forces virtually from the first moment we regain our consciousness every new day.

It was difficult enough when these intrusions came to us through the radio in the kitchen, the television screen in the corner or the newspaper on the news-stand.

But it’s worse, much worse, now. Countless moments every day, we invite these intrusions through our mobile phones and our laptops and our Alexa speakers. Whereas once we were afraid that Big Brother might decide to watch us, now we open our doors and plant him in every room of our homes.

The upshot of all this intrusion is that we’ve become so conditioned to feel in need of the things we want, we don’t realise we no longer seem to want the things we truly need.

I speak with full knowledge of my hypocrisy, too. 

A widescreen television is mounted on the wall. 

A Google Nest speaker waits, poised, in the kitchen, listening to our every word. 

A phone with 94 apps (I’ve just counted them…) sits within my eye-line as I type these words. 

Are these just normal, harmless mod-cons, or are they at some level threatening the life I want to lead?

To get to the heart of the matter, what is my most heartfelt wish for my life, and what are my choices to make it reality?

My most heartfelt wish is to live a life of contribution, energy, purpose and peace of mind.

To live a fulfilled life. 

To live a happy life. 

A life that brings happiness both in the satisfaction of a job well done over the long run, and in the ability to “stand on the meeting of two eternities, the past and future, which is precisely the present moment” and experience the joy laden within that moment.

And while you may or may not express it in the same terms, this, or a version of this, is your most heartfelt wish too.

Happiness is the driving force of everything we do. From the big, once in a lifetime undertakings to the occasional (and occasionally shameful) shortcuts we take, happiness — love, belonging, acceptance — is somewhere at the root of all of it.

Happiness hormones can come from a slab of chocolate, and last about the time it takes to eat it.

They can also come from a big decision taken and the first daunting step put into action. 

Happiness-chasing choices are made at almost every moment of every day. There are at least two types of them. Doing our best to limit the type of happiness-chasing choices that cause long-term damage to our bodies and minds, and to push through more of those that give long-term sustenance to our souls — that, right there, is a big part of the challenge of being human.

This year, I decided against big goals and New Year’s resolutions.

In the past, the turning of the year has been a time of such deep reflection for me that I often tried to change too much too quickly.

Perhaps I’m older and wiser, or perhaps I’m just a bit short on energy, but this time I decided to approach things differently.

This year, instead of adding anything, I’m first choosing to take things away. To let go.

In no particular order:

  • I’m letting go of as many external digital inputs as I can. WhatsApp groups, TV news, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, endless podcasts. On more than one occasion in the fairly recent past I’ve decided not to watch a movie I’ve been looking forward to, or decided against picking up a book I’ve been enjoying, on the grounds that I couldn’t justify the time needed to focus on it, and then find I’ve pissed away 90 minutes scrolling through Twitter. It pains me to say it, as the Internet is how I’m reaching you right now, and the Internet has given me the bulk of my livelihood for the bulk of 20 years, but the Internet — or more accurately, perhaps — the way the Internet has developed is bad for my mind and my body. So I need to let go. To switch off. To disconnect. The human body — perhaps the most finely calibrated machine the universe has ever seen — needs to disconnect from everything mechanical to truly recharge. Groundedness and connection to the earth is more vital than it has ever been. We can achieve this groundedness and earth-connection through walking, breathing, stretching, stopping by a flowing river, eating meals mostly made of plants and reading books made not from bits and bites and algorithms, but from paper made from matter that used to be trees.
  • I’m letting go of any email newsletters I find more interruptive than inspirational. I’ve removed myself from about 30 email newsletters that routinely popped up in my inbox. For two years or more, they arrived without question. I asked myself to reflect on the benefit or the cost of these constant interruptions, and for most of them, the ledger was firmly on the cost side. Those that stayed include Brain Pickings, a twice-weekly newsletter from Maria Popova that I love, and that I realise now had been swamped by all the other sales-pitch marketing-funnel dross that I had for whatever reason invited into my email inbox. 
  • I’m letting go of all social media apps from my phone. Again, the lack of intention in my behaviour was quickly apparent to me when I took stock over the holidays. I found I was reacting to a swirling sea of random, utterly insignificant notifications, buzzing on my phone or popping up on my laptop screen. When I was honest with myself, and channeled the time spent on social media on my phone through my happiness quadrant two-by-two, it was quickly obvious that almost none of this was time well spent. Five minutes and one uninstall spree later, they’re all gone.
  • I’m letting go of push notifications of all kinds. Sticking with the phone for a minute. (Because it’s so pervasive a presence in so many lives…) I’m trying to make it a tool again, and further reduce my slavish relationship to it. Until a year or so ago, my phone was the last thing I saw at night, and the first thing I saw in the morning. It was my bedtime reading, my alarm clock, my sleep cycle monitoring tool… Last year I broke that behaviour, which does seem ludicrous in hindsight. I lost the fear of missing out as soon as I realised all the things I could gain. 
  • I’m letting go of unnecessary travel. A year ago I decided my day to day freelancing job, and the need to sustain that business, meant I should put myself out there in the world more and more. I committed to hiring a co-working space in Dublin city, and travel in early or stay late at least once a week to attend networking events. This year, I plan to remove all unnecessary travel. I have a home office, and the Internet connection is pretty quick and pretty reliable, and I’m about to put to the test something I’ve been claiming for a couple of years: that all I need is a computer and a decent Internet connection, and I can work from anywhere.  (A lower personal carbon footprint might be another good outcome, but I can’t honestly say it played much of a part in this decision.)
  • I’m letting go of the definition that “work” is only something someone else pays me for. There’s nothing wrong with being paid. It’s essential. Without retreating to an ascetic life, all of us need to earn money. Even more than that, we need to love the process of earning money, so that we don’t attach money only to negative experiences. This reality — of getting money from doing things we dislike, and eventually disliking everything about it, disliking the work itself, disliking ourselves because of our relationship to it and its relationship to money — is unnecessarily common. Work doesn’t need to be something we dislike, or even hate. It’s possible for work to be something we love, whether we love it at the start and we build our professional career around it; or whether (more frequently) we over time achieve excellence at something and love that feeling of doing something, performing something, in which we have achieved excellence. My work right now is many things. It is writing, it is podcasting, it is life and business coaching for entrepreneurs and executives, it is sustainable digital strategy and marketing for purpose-driven businesses. I don’t get paid to do all these things, but still, all these things are my work, and I treat them with the seriousness that all work deserves.
  • I’m letting go of the feeling that the hours between 9 and 5 are only for “work”. After I went freelance a couple of years back, I soon realised that my physiological and mental rhythms weren’t perfectly suited to the typical workday. I found I could focus and be productive from early in the morning until around lunchtime, and again in the evenings. But the hours of 2-5pm almost always became a black hole of low energy, low mood and relentless questioning of basically everything. It’s taken two years and several false starts to finally mark those hours for something else. I’ll make another attempt this month and see how it goes.
  • I’m letting go of the need to be liked. Last year I wrote down 11 personal rules for daily living. One of them was, “It’s okay to be liked. It’s not okay to base decisions on the premise of being liked.” I rarely say no. Whether that comes from general agreeableness, or whether it’s a need to people-please borne of some conditioning from decades ago, or whether saying yes is a short-term way of being liked, or whether I suffer from a scarcity mindset that tells me I must say yes to everything I’m offered because the slope to insolvency and hunger and home repossession is a slippery one, I can’t rightly say. For whatever reason, I’ve always found it troublingly difficult to say no. But perhaps it’s a skill, and just needs a little practice. Jason Fried, the founder of a successful software company and someone whose worldview I admire, put it like this: “‘No’ is no to one thing. ‘Yes’ is no to a lot of things.” I’d rather say no to one specific thing I don’t think I’ll like, than say no to a lot of things that I might enjoy. This is likely to be a work in progress. Lots of fear and anxiety attached here.

What can you let go in 2020?