An Alternative to Failed New Year’s Resolutions
When I was eight (or maybe older…) I would invite my friends over and we’d spend a couple of hours creating an elaborate fort in my room. It was made of pillows, blankets and propped up by chairs. I remember feeling like it was the safest place in the world. We’d talk about whatever 8 year olds talked about, watched scary movies and ate boxes of pepperoni pizza until 3am.
Why did we build these wonderful contraptions? Maybe we were just being kids. Or perhaps we were flexing our cognitive skills and learning how to cooperate by building something together. After all, these are both important steps in childhood development.
David Sobel is the leading expert on why kids build forts and says that these pillow-stacking exercises are a sort of stress relief against the outside world. “A fort is, literally and figuratively, a defense against all the forces of the outside world (and a primo place to daydream),” he says.
There are two more driving forces behind why kids build forts:
1) They’re figuring out their nearby world. Kids want to learn how all the pieces in their life fit together…and their place in it.
2) They’re becoming more independent. Kids are also starting to create a separate self from the one defined by their family and their parents. They crave their own separate place in the world.
As a kid I was making sense of what was around me and declaring my independence. Around this time, I decided I would become an astronaut, work for the CIA, and dabble in firefighting in my spare time (no doubt drawing inspiration from my collection of G.I. Joes). I’m pretty sure there was a plan to take over the world, too.
This was all good and fun for a few years, until I got distracted.
Forts turn into breasts
As I got older and hit puberty I lost interest in forts and turned my attention to breasts. I forgot all about the enclosed structures where I had my sense of freedom, and I descended into a world of hormone-fueled existence, a just-enough-to-pass effort at school, and (unknowingly) accepted the path that society had planned out for me: school, more school, debt, work. (Nowadays, I’m more of a butt guy).
The schemes and plans to take over the world were put on hold for a while. I didn’t find my fort again until 14 years later — not until I graduated university and started to work full-time in corporate sales.
I found myself smack dab in the center of Tokyo, sitting in a room that was basically a tiny shipping container with one big window at the end of it.
‘What are your goals? What do you want to do after this job?’
My client asked the question and let it sit in the air for a few moments. The meeting had pretty much finished — we were done talking business. Now we were sharing our stories.
I said, ‘I just started this job, but one day I’d like to start a company.’ A pretty good goal, I thought.
He gave me a blank stare. Again, he let the awkwardness sit in the air for a bit. Then he assured me, ‘You can start one now. What’s stopping you?’
I fumbled through an excuse — being too young, too inexperienced. Normally this would work to deflect this sort of interrogation. But he was in his 20s, like me, and had already started and sold one company. I had very little to fall back on because he had demonstrated that it was possible. All I had were flimsy excuses.
This small conversation popped back into my head for the next several weeks. While I had only started the job, I had thought little about what I wanted to do over the next few years (let alone how I was going to get there).
I knew my ideas would change, as all goals do inevitably over time, yet I felt like I was floating on top of a turbulent ocean, hoping that one day I would wash onto treasure island.
I couldn’t wait for that to happen. No. What I needed was a magical fort…or a batcave, a secret lair burrowed in the mountains, an island of solitude.
I needed a place to think.
I needed to go back to the drawing board.
Who was drawing on my drawing board if it wasn’t me?
Who’s game was I living inside of, anyways?
Inspiration is short-lived
New Year’s tends to inspire change because it marks the end and beginning. Timing is important. Also it usually comes with some alone time to think, whether that’s on the plane back home to see family or a quiet ride down the ski slope — nothing but the sound of the wind and static whiteness to give you a canvas for your inspiration to unfold.
The problem is this whole experience only comes once a year. It’s brief, at best. You see, we seldom get time to ourselves. We rarely enter the magical fort where we can let our dreams run wild. We try hard to escape from all the talking heads that tell us what we should do, to no avail. Maybe a glimpse comes in the shower, but it’s over in a few minutes and then back to the grind.
How do we know that we haven’t strayed off the path?
How do we know that we are doing what we should be doing?
There’s no simple answer, but it’s unlikely that a once-a-year reflection is going to solve our problems. It’s more likely we forget our resolutions (as you may have experienced) and then reassess our lives when we’re forced to. Like when someone dies or we lose our jobs. The midlife crisis is a culmination of all those years of failed new years promises. And who really wants to wait forthat to happen?
Isolation as a creative force
It wasn’t until I created a space for myself, and became comfortable being by myself that I was able to notice what was going on in my life (I am not a fan of that book “never eat lunch alone”). You can’t set a goal to do the next big thing (or little thing) if you keep forgetting what that big thing is, or if people are telling you what to do and you have no time to think for yourself.
What if, instead of creating a “stretch-goal” for New Year’s that ends up failing, we just created more space for ourselves to think throughout the year? What if the key to getting more done required doing less?
I think we’d find that we have more time to reflect on our short term actions, course-correct, and make sure that our actions were meaningful. We could reflect monthly, weekly, or even daily, instead of waiting for the end of the year when we’re hungover and tired.
Our alone-time would become meta habit for all other goals to unfold.
But shelter and isolation conjure images of weakness and retreat. This stigma is strange and, well, it’s false. If there’s a lesson you can take from any spiritual leader that has ever lived — they all spent vast swaths of time by themselves. Not to mention, the Van Goh’s and Da Vinci’s.
Great ideas often emerge from periods of isolation, and meaningful action is easier when we’re not catering to the world around us — but focusing on ourselves.
The goal, to be clear, is not self-imposed isolation in the mountains. Rather, it’s a different take on mindfulness. An action-oriented approach that says, “once we make the time, deliberately, to think, then doors will open and paths will emerge.”
The good news is you don’t need to shuffle your furniture and create a literal fort.
Time to create a Megazord
I was particularly fond of the “lego fort,” a fort surrounded by a neat circle of legos. Everything outside the circle was an absolute mess of jumbled legos, but the negative space inside felt peaceful. It also allowed me to focus on creating my megazord or helicopter that required no rotors because it ran on magic (and lego pizzas affixed to the side of it boosted the lift).
This year I challenge you to build a fort so that you can make more time to create your megazord — or whatever it is that you want to create.
Ask yourself, “how can I make more time to think? Where can I find time to myself?”
Plan yourself a time frame in your day that acts like a fort or the negative space of that circle of legos — a time frame that is completely free of thinking about immediate obligations, checking emails, shooting a text because you just remembered it’s Jeff’s birthday and everything else.
You can dedicate that time frame to something like journaling — a time in the morning to grab a pen and enter your daily fort. You can get a moleskin journal or try out reMarkable for a great paper tablet solution.
Or maybe you go for a purposeless walk like Thoreau, where you let your mind wander without the pressure of “being somewhere.”
Perhaps you schedule “thinking meetings” with yourself every week, where you ask a big, juicy open ended questions. “How do I change my career?” or “How can I travel more this year?”
These are all tiny forts in their own way, and ones that will give you a place to go, to reassess, to plan, to retreat, to structure, to make sense of the world around you.
You’ll find that you don’t need to drastically change your life this January.
In fact, forget about making a New Years resolution.
You can start building your fort right now.