It’s always best when the new year instalment of this column happens to appear a few days after new year. It means that, with a bit of luck, any readers unwise enough to have attempted some kind of grandiose “fresh start” for the year ahead – meditating or exercising every day, never checking Facebook, never losing your temper with your children, that sort of thing – will already have fallen off the wagon. That’s an important stage to pass through, because it’s only then, with your absolutist illusions out of the way, that you can set about making the best of the coming year in a clear-eyed fashion.
Increasingly, this feels like a healthy attitude to take to the world at large, too. Now that there’s no chance of an actively positive outcome on Brexit, now that we don’t need to wonder whether or not the world is run by a shadowy cabal of incompetent barmpots, we can pull on our boots and start living according to the words of the environmentalist Derrick Jensen: “One of the great things about everything being so fucked up is that, no matter where you look, there’s great work to be done.”
What might this mean, practically, in 2019? Well, I’m confident of one thing: it should involve much less of the internet. This will be the year that leaving social media shifts decisively from “annoying hipster lifestyle choice” to “basic precondition of sanity”; Twitter, especially, will hit a critical threshold of awfulness, prompting mass defections. More generally, I’ll be seeking to implement the philosophy that the writer Cal Newport calls “digital minimalism”, detailed in a book of the same title, published next month.
Far from being a luddite rejection of technology, digital minimalism involves setting the bar much higher: demanding that any given device, app or hour spent online makes a major positive difference to your life before you allow it any time or attention. (Quick, without thinking too hard: delete the social media apps from your phone, right now! You can still access those platforms from a laptop or desktop, but you’ll naturally find yourself doing so less often.) Already, it seems preposterous that we ever swallowed Facebook’s line that more connection is always better. True connection, it’s becoming clear, depends on not trying to do it with too many people at once.
There’s a broader point here, which is worth keeping in mind as the year unfolds: your time and attention are such limited resources that the standard for letting something into your life can’t simply be “Is it worthwhile?” On that basis, there are 100 self-improvement schemes you should implement in 2019, and just as many good causes to which you should commit yourself. In reality, though, once you’ve taken care of life’s non-negotiables, you’ll have a smallish sliver of time to devote to improving yourself and/or the world.
If you must retain a New Year resolution, resolve not to beat yourself up for failing to do more. In personal matters, as in politics, 2019 should be the year of Picking Your Battles. As with Jensen’s observation above, this isn’t cynicism or defeatism. On the contrary: it’s the difference between feeling stuck and getting stuck in.
Colin Beavan shows how self-help and helping the world can be mutually reinforcing in his 2017 book How To Be Alive.