Like a lot of people, my boyfriend was laid-off as a result of coronavirus related closures. Like a lot of people too, I assume, he feels like he should have accomplished more with his time since being laid-off. He recently told me that he’d tried to do this challenge where you do 100 sit-ups, daily, for a month. But, he added, obviously disappointed, “I haven’t done a sit-up in like a week.”
So, I assumed the role of the encouraging boyfriend and told him, “You can still do 100 sit-ups a day for a month. Just make it a long month.”
I think he thought I was joking. “Just make it a long month” does sound like the punchline to a bad joke, and my boyfriend is used to being bombarded by my bad jokes. But, even if it were a bad joke, it was a bad joke with a serious point.
Goals and programs based around consistency, the “do this one thing every day for a month,” the 30-day challenges, and the like, can end up putting an undue emphasis on reaching an arbitrarily defined finish line; a finish line that we often do not need to reach in order to make serious improvements to our well-being.
For example, back in March I started a 30-day at home yoga program. It is now May and I have completed 14 of the 30 videos. I started the so-called journey to gain flexibly, improve my posture, get some regular exercise, and help manage my stress. I didn’t finish the 30 days, and the 14 days I did finish were spread out over the course of nearly two months. I felt as though I had failed. I was disappointed in myself.
But when I thought about it, I realized that I still got everything I set out to get from the challenge. I was more flexible than before, my posture was better and easier to maintain while I worked, I was moving more often than I was before, and I felt great even though my working life started to become a bit tumultuous.
These 30-day challenges are supposed to be a means to an end. But I often find myself treating them as if they were ends in themselves such that not finishing them makes me feel as if I haven’t really done what I set out to do. I suspect that I am not alone. It’s not surprising to me that my boyfriend brought up an incomplete month-long challenge as an example of not accomplishing something.
I worry that this challenge format makes us overemphasize project completion as the only or the most important standard of success. I don’t want to replace more complex evaluations of our lives with the simple measurement of what we have done, what we have finished, crossed-off, left behind.
I can write a novel and cross it off my list of goals. But I can’t really finish the goal of being a writer or being a good writer or being a writer that has a positive impact on others. The value of this goal can’t be measured in terms of crossing a finish line. Its value lies in something else.
Similarly, the value of making art may not arise merely from a finished painting. The value of starting a company might not come from its making a profit. Getting something done is only one part of living and I’m not so sure it’s even the most important part. So, when I take a long month, I force myself to look at my life and the choices I make without a knee-jerk reliance on completing projects as the sole standard of success.
I doubt I will finish the 30-days of at home yoga anytime soon. It’s unclear when my boyfriend will get in all of those sit-ups. But as we balance our reasons for following-through against our reasons for not, as we weigh the value of another down-dog against the value of reading just a bit longer, as we measure the quality of immediate joys against those of longer-term pleasures, we engage in the deliberation and negotiation of values that allows for many different kinds of worthwhile things to take root in our lives.
There are so many ways to realize value that it simply doesn’t matter if the long month lasts the rest of our lives.