Aristotle famously wrote that a whole [story] consists of a beginning, a middle, and an end. His point was that in a well-constructed story, causes established in the beginning of a story give rise to effects in the middle of the story, and those effects give rise to further outcomes in the end.
Aristotle was talking about fictional stories, but that progression—beginning to middle to end—also holds true in the stories where we live and move and have our being. It holds true, and yet it’s not the truest thing about our lives. The linear march from cause to effect to outcome doesn’t account for all of human experience, or even most of it. There are always surprises (for good or ill), and there are always opportunities to begin again.
I have mixed feelings about New Year’s, with its resolutions and new commitments that so often turn out to be a setup for disappointment. You probably have mixed feelings too. But I’m grateful for a holiday that reminds us that one of the things that makes us human is the ability to begin and begin again.
So, yes, it’s completely arbitrary to treat January 1 as the day to begin a new habit or to begin working toward a new goal or to begin a new commitment. And it’s possible that today, on January 3, you already feel your resolve slipping. But if January 1 is an arbitrary date for new beginnings, that means you can just as easily begin again in February or March or August in the event that this beginning goes off the rails.
There is plenty of good advice out there for ways to make your goals and resolutions stick. Even I have attempted to offer advice from time to time—for example, here and here. This year, however, I mostly want to say this: it’s hard to predict which new beginnings are going to stick. But you can always begin again. No failure of resolve has to be permanent.
If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to acknowledge a new beginning that stuck. Five years ago this week, I decided I would start sending out a letter to writers every Tuesday morning. One the one hand, I thought the weekly commitment would do me (and hopefully my readers) some good; on the other hand, It was a daunting prospect, since my track record for meeting deadlines was pretty unimpressive. But I started, and I started hearing from readers who started looking forward to reading what I had to say, and I just kept going. Today marks five full years of Tuesday letters; I haven’t missed a Tuesday since I started.
Nothing about my prior record suggested that I was capable of that kind of consistency. Looking back, there are explanations—chiefly, that I found it motivating and joy-giving to know that a few hundred, and eventually a few thousand readers expected to hear from me every Tuesday morning. But on the front end there was no predicting that this new beginning would be any different from countless other new schemes I had cooked up over the years.
Thanks for reading The Habit Weekly. Here’s hoping you find work that gives you joy in 2023.
Keep on beginning.