Resolutions in Bits and Pieces: Two Ways of Getting Shit Done

Trigger Warning: This is a post about things going well and a meditation on how I contributed to things going well. It might help you in your own endeavours. However, if you are not  currently doing well and feel reading about someone else feeling ok will make everything a little worse, read something else. There are plenty of dark-place-posts on this blog. This isn’t one of them. This is. This is. And also maybe this.

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When my phone displayed 00:00 yesterday night, silently blinking in a new year – I live in the woods far away from tolling church towers – for the first time in 15 years, I had no New Year’s Resolution.

The reason that I didn’t have a resolution is that, oddly, I seem to have accomplished all my usual resolutions. For many years, my resolutions remained stable. I resolved to accomplish next year what I had failed to accomplish in the last: achieve an academic/work goal, exercise regularly, finish “the novel” (not always the same one). Obviously, I haven’t finished the thesis yet but the last time I saw my supervisor he used the words “finishing up” in relation to my thesis, which was shockingly gratifying. Obviously, I don’t work as much as I used to think I should. But apparently, I work enough. The same goes for exercising. I don’t do the amount of exercise which I idealised before I began exercising. But now that I exercise “regularly” – intensely some weeks, just enough not to forget how to do it in others – I feel I do a sufficient amount of exercise.

I have become about 80% of the person that I always wanted to be. And now that I am at 80%, I find 80% is plenty. When I was far, far removed from all my resolutions, I dreamed of perfection. Now that I am getting there, perfection has become irrelevant (assimilate that, inner Seven of Nine). It is much more fun to be good enough at many things than to dream of perfection in one. Also, it leaves more time for watching television and procrastinating.

Most importantly, I finished my novel. It is not perfect. But it is good to be accepted by a German publisher I like, which is plenty.

So when the iphone clock blinked 00:00, I wasn’t promising that this would be the year I’d finish “The Novel” as I had done in 2015 and every year before that since I was about 12. Instead, I was staring at the foggy fireworks wondering how I’d made 2015 “That Year”. And why I was suddenly, blissfully free of Resolutions.

So here’s what I came up with. The way I had managed to make 2015 the year of the Novel, the Exercise, the Thesis and becoming almost the person I had always wanted to be was…. *drumroll*…. bits and pieces. It wasn’t a tour de force, it wasn’t sleepless dedication. It was a 4km run here, 15 minutes of nocturnal novel writing, 300 words of thesis when nobody was looking. I still spent more hours surfing the webs and doing nothing every day than I could ever admit to anyone. I still watched more television than seems humanly possibly (they call me the Telly Terror; bingeing is a super power).

The reason I finished “The Novel” in 2015, after failing to finish it every single previous year since 2000 is that I realised that I could be almost the person I wanted to be without stopping to be the person I am. In all the previous years, my resolutions were based on a radical decision not to be myself anymore. That is: no TV, no facebook, no carbs. I do that for a week, collapse into illness or anxiety, and then forget all about it until the 31st of December when I resolve to do the same thing next year. But not in 2015. In 2015, I did a little exercise, a little novel, a little thesis, a lot of telly. A little guilt; many fresh starts. I accomplished 15 years of resolutions not with a bang but a whimper. Not through one giant leap but through many bits and pieces.

Bits and pieces are not true synonyms. A “bit” is a small piece. And this, I think, is crucial. It’s not only about regular bits but also about larger, focused pieces. Not every run I did was 4km. Many were much longer. Almost exactly half of the novel was written during a two year period – in quarter hours after a day of thesis writing, in solitary Sunday morning brunches, in stollen minutes. But the other half was written in one long uninterrupted, joyous push.

There is a temptation to think that the push is all. “If only I had four weeks without interruption, I could finish the thesis/run a marathon/write a novel”. But, for me at least, the big piece alone won’t do. I tried that a lot to varying degrees of panic. The result is either what I call writer’s dread or about half a draft that I abandon as soon as my uninterrupted time comes to an end. I defer finishing the piece to the next uninterrupted time. When that comes along whatever I had previously written has become so inaccessible that it seems easier and wiser to simply start something else.

Similarly, I found that small bits alone also don’t quite work. Whenever someone tells me that “all it takes is 15 minutes a day,” I become suspicious. You have to be some kind of super hero monk-saint to do anything for 15 minutes every day. By day three there are usually more important things to do. By day seven I feel so guilty that I pretend I never meant to do the thing in the first place. More importantly, even when you do 15 minutes a day, the results are underwhelming. Yes, you progress but you never have the glorious feeling of accomplishment.

The trick is to combine the bits and the pieces. To write for 15 minutes  a few times a month, so when you have a week to write, you remember how to do it and what you were writing about and when the week is over, you can still progress till the next big chunk of time becomes available. You need to run those underwhelming 4k, so when the time comes for the glorious half marathon, you can hit the ground running.

 

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About Oxford DPhile

I'm a doctoral candidate in English at Somerville College, Oxford. My thesis, tentatively titled “Just Literature: Evil, Victorian Narrative, and the Problem of Theodicy”, explores the interplay between literature and theodicy – the justification of a good God in light of the existence of evil – in the works of A.H. Clough, J.A. Froude and George Eliot. I teach English Literature at the University of Würzburg, coach academic writing in English at Oxford, blog about the tricks and pitfalls of thesis writing, and love to collaborate. My novel "Das Unglück anderer Leute" was published by Galiani Berlin in August 2016.
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7 Responses to Resolutions in Bits and Pieces: Two Ways of Getting Shit Done

  1. Daedalus Lex says:

    Seems like a breakthrough year for you in terms of personal enlightenment and finding a comfort level with your goals and capacities. Congrats! How often have I had the same exact problems with writing projects relegated to “uninterrupted times”! Is your novel in German? If not, I’d like to read it. I can read novels in English or Spanish but short stories in German are still a struggle 😦

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes, a breakthrough years in many ways. I hope you had a good one, too. And a better one coming up. Yes, the novel is in German, I am afraid. I am sure your German would be sufficient, though. And it will only come out around August, so you have plenty of time to practice 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Daedalus Lex says:

        If plans hold, I will be in Germany (and possibly England or Spain) this summer, so I can walk into a German bookstore and browbeat them into stocking your book or at least ordering it for me. If possible, send me a page or two sample so I can test my mettle 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • Daedalus Lex says:

        Hola Nele! Ich sagte meinem Chef, dass ich trete von meinem Arbeit zurück um 1 Mai. Ich fliege von New York bis Wien um 9 Juni. Dann fahre ich langsam per Anhalter um Deutschland — in der Nahe von Heidelberg um spät Juni und (wenn ich nicht Arbeit in Deutschland finden) besuche einen anderen Freund in Oxford in Juli. Ich kaufe dir ein Kaffee wenn du in diese Nahe bist 🙂 Gary

        Like

      • Das hört sich fantastisch an! Herzlichen Glückwunsch zu der Entscheidung! Sag bescheid wenn du in der Nähe bist, ich würde mich freuen.

        Like

  2. This blog is great, thanks so much – very welcome in my PhD stupor.
    Sam

    Liked by 1 person

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