It’s the New Year. That means fresh starts, resetting your life and coming up with new goals, right? But this year (decade!) I won’t be looking for a fresh start. Instead, I will continue building on what I’ve learned about myself over the past decade and build on growing my strengths and managing negative behaviours. Looking back is more important than looking forward.
When it comes to digital wellbeing, maintenance and self-care is more important than goals. When you find yourself constantly refreshing Instagram, or falling down a scroll hole, you don’t need to start again. You need to focus on maintaining and repeating the same actions that helped you in the past, whether that was using a website or app blocker, going for a walk or turning to a book as an alternative. Wellbeing is often maintained by a series of small actions that you repeat on a daily or weekly basis.
While goals are important, they are more difficult to achieve if you haven’t put in place healthy habits to support them, whether that is sleeping 7-8 hours a night, exercising or eating fruit and veg. These behaviours are good-in-themselves, not stepping stones to losing weight, getting a promotion or making more money. Digital wellness is similar. So instead of a fresh start, I will do the following instead:
Learn from experience
Instead of vowing never to make the same mistakes again, I will lean back on the things that helped in the past. To give you a personal example, I know that I am most likely to slip back into bad habits when I feel I can rely on willpower instead of external boundaries (e.g. website blockers, deleting an app, having an easy alternative to hand such as a book).
I’ve learned that it’s important to be on-your-toes when you are using algorithmically-driven persuasive technology. It would be great if I could do everything I want first-time-round, but that’s now how these tools were designed, and I’m not magically immune to these tactics just because I spend less time on my phone than I did 3 years ago.
And because there is very little separation between the value I get from using many persuasive platforms from my deepest needs and desires (a sense of community, activism, pleasure), I cannot overly identify with them. I need to maintain and nurture a critical distance, while still using these tools to benefit myself and others. That can be difficult if you feel that Twitter is the main place you get your emotional support or Instagram is at the heart of your social life. It is not to say that such emotional support is not valid, but to remind yourself that these spaces make a profit by mining your personal information and attention, so it’s important not to over-romanticise them, or use them as a replacement for face-to-face connection or avoiding responsibilities away from a screen.
Building on and celebrating progress
The beginning the year is also a good time to reflect on what’s gone well. Every time you maintain a habit that makes you feel like you are learning, growing or healing, celebrate it! So this year, instead of vowing to become a new person, as if you’re this broken failure (which I’m not, and you’re not either), look back at your strengths and successes. Spend a few minutes daydreaming about things that you are proud of or grateful for instead of obsessing over the things that you want to change or improve.
Self-knowledge and self-awareness can be uncomfortable, but not something to be frightened of. Self-awareness will help you to catch yourself when you’re getting distracted. Familiarising yourself with the physical cues that make you feel vulnerable to wanting to check something in the first place can help you anticipate those behaviours in advance and plan alternatives. Instead of forcing yourself to fit the rhythm of someone’s alleged ‘miracle’ cure or quick fix, learn your own rhythms and work with them. For example, there will be some hours of the day when you feel more energised and productive, and other hours when you need to give yourself a break.
This goes hand-in-hand with self-knowledge. Committing to short and time-bound self-experiments to tackling instant gratification, digital distraction and making time for developing skills can be really fun. Some things will be easier to stick to than others, but the act of doing small self-experiments will help you learn what works for you.
I’ve learned that I work well with simple rules that I commit to for a month: write for an hour a day, don’t check social media before breakfast, block Twitter and the Guardian during work hours. If I really enjoyed something, I will continue it for longer than a month. But the more I experiment, the faster I learn about what’s easier to sustain. Even if you can prove something to yourself in the short term, and you break, you learnt something about yourself and you can try out a different tactic.
The New Year is when many people focus on self-improvement. But wellbeing isn’t an end-state. It is a process that you need to maintain every day of your life. You may have slip-ups, but they are only blips along a lifelong journey. What’s important is not to overplay the importance of slip-ups and continue to focus on maintaining the habits that promote your wellbeing. Fresh beginnings are not as exciting as growing and caring for who you already are. So embrace who you are, and not who you can be. You have everything you need already to thrive.
So, instead of starting afresh in 2020, what do you vow to continue?