What can you do less of in 2024?

by Suw on January 10, 2024

Sometimes we should resolve not to add more to our lives, but to make space by taking things away.

I am not a fan of New Year’s resolutions. I used to make them, but I rarely kept them. The New Year, falling as it does in the middle of winter, season of damp grey days and not enough sunlight, is not a good time for me to be trying to do something new. It can be a struggle just to get through the day in one piece without adding the extra weight of a resolution to my shoulders.

So I was rather pleased to see a couple of articles doing the rounds this year that question the validity of two aspects to New Year’s resolutions that I find most difficult to deal with: Adding more to our plate and perfectionism.

Tim Harford in the Financial Times tackles the premise that our resolutions usually add new activities to our lives when we should really take a moment to asses what our lives are already full of and search for something we can take away. He discusses “subtraction neglect”, where we will generally try to solve a problem by adding something rather than removing it. We’ll try to improve a recipe by adding ingredients or fix a wonky Lego bridge by adding a block rather than taking anything away.

But the devil is always in the details and Harford has found it hard to know what to take away from his life:

as I pondered my weekly commitments and the list of things I was hoping to achieve over the next three months, I struggled. What could I subtract? I wanted to do all of it.

Even asking Leidy Klotz, author of Subtract: The Untapped Science of Less, for advice didn’t help.

Klotz suggested an experiment, which he calls a “reverse pilot”. Unlike a regular pilot, in which you temporarily try something new, a reverse pilot calls for temporary subtraction. Just stop doing something for a bit, wrote Klotz, and see what happens. “Sometimes there is no way to know for sure what the outcome will be from removing something.”

Fair enough. Although I still couldn’t work out what to subtract from my life. Exercise less? Nope. See less of the children? They might want that, but it hardly felt like a noble plan. Less culture, less music, see friends less often?

Harford jokingly concludes that perhaps he should just work less, which I actually do think is a good answer. We have a lot of evidence that four day weeks – that is, proper four day weeks not pretend ones where you have to cram a full week’s work into less time – are highly beneficial, increasing productivity, reducing burnout and improving wellbeing. So actually, reducing work is a legitimate answer, even though Harford can’t quite bring himself to admit that.

But something else to consider reducing is perfectionism.

I will admit, I am a bit of a perfectionist. I want to put my very best work out into the world, whether that’s a newsletter or a book or Ada Lovelace Day Live. I will sweat the details. But actually, maybe, some of those details don’t matter?

Not every task is created equal and there are some areas where things do not have to be perfect, they just have to be good enough. Indeed, most things can just be good enough. That’s Sophie McBain’s argument in The Guardian and, as a recovering perfectionist, it’s one that I need to take to heart.

Psychologist Barry Schwartz suggests that there are two responses when faced with endless choice:

“Satisficers” are happy to pick a good enough option and are unlikely to spend their free time reading hundreds of product reviews, but “maximisers” feel compelled to make the best possible choice. This means the more choices they are offered, the worse off they are: an expansion of possibilities makes decision-making harder and regret the more likely outcome.

McBain points out that we talk about so much of our lives in maximiser terms, and perhaps we should rein that in and allow ourselves to be content with good enough.

How much energy do we waste on trying to close that gap between good enough and perfect? How much additional time does that take? What if we just admitted to ourselves, as Oliver Burkeman says, “we’ve already failed, totally and irredeemably.” Wouldn’t that give us so much more freedom to be good enough and to do other things with the time and energy we waste on trying to be perfect?

Burkeman goes on to say:

Behind our more strenuous attempts at personal change, there’s almost always the desire for a feeling of control. We want to lever ourselves into a position of dominance over our lives, so that we might finally feel secure and in charge, and no longer so vulnerable to events. But whichever way you look at it, this kind of control is an illusion.

New Year’s resolutions are the epitome of this. Every year, we try to assert more control over our lives so that we can feel better about them. Instead, we should let that go, accept that much of what we want to achieve is actually outside of our control, and look at finding ways to enjoy the process instead.

This is especially true of creative work where we are so often hostages to fortune. We could write the best book in the world, but if the time isn’t right then it won’t be published. Equally, if we’re lucky enough to hit the zeitgeist, then a book that’s just good enough can do real numbers. Neither outcome is within our control.

So this year, before we try to come up with some New Year’s resolutions, before we start outlining all our goals, perhaps we should have a think about what we could do less of instead. How can we practice being a satisficer? Where can we let go of our perfectionism? How do we identify which activities aren’t helping us and do less of them, in favour of doing thing that help us achieve what’s important to us and make us happier?

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