“Only Leave Unfinished…”

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A lovely quote. There’s just one problem with it: in its current iteration, it’s crap. I mean, what life dreams have you ever had that could be accomplished in one day? Can you become a pro athlete, write a novel, finish a painting, or raise a child in one day? No. No, you cannot.

I generally don’t like articles that talk about “harmful trends” in our society, so it unnerves me a little bit to be writing one. I view the internet as a clarifying instrument, simply allowing humans to be who they are in new ways, and sometimes faster ways. I’d argue vociferously that the internet has, on the whole, made humanity better off, and one thing I actually love is the proliferation of inspirational quotes, how-to blogs, and general “you can do it!” attitude.

And with that said, I get the idea behind this quote: don’t sit around, don’t wait to seize the day. Get going with your life! But it’s also true that while humans have the capacity to look to the long term, we’re hardwired to follow a now-or-never path, especially when we’re stressed. Get the food now. Escape the rabid bear now (that one is actually very good advice). Survive now, achieve your objective now, and let the future sort itself out. Inspiration that falls into the same trap, especially with creative endeavors, really just lights helpful guideposts along the trail to burnout.

The truth is, we can’t write a whole opera, novel, or thesis today. The now-now-now drive that keeps us going often flares dangerously high and begins to consume us. It’s 9:15PM and we need to be going to bed. It’s 10:20 and we just want to finish edits on that one last chapter. It’s 11:10 and we figure there’s no reason not to stay up a little later, given that we’re already going to be sleep-deprived tomorrow. After all, we know Picasso didn’t actually mean today, but we should get as much done as we can, right? As much as humanly possible. If we just push a little bit harder…

To quote Martha Beck, from her book 4 Day Win:

Pushing ourselves to extremes can keep us in a near-permanent state of fight-or-flight response. This level of exhaustion is like being run over by a steamroller very, very slowly. At first you hardly notice it – you’re just a little tired and cranky. Then you can’t get up without coffee every day. Then the coffee stops helping, even when you add several candy bars. Then you get eye bags the size and color of mature eggplants. Then you start crying whenever you have to get out of bed. Then you develop muscle tearing, viral infections, memory loss, and the inability to read anything longer than a haiku. Then you fall over in the Phoenix airport and have to be taken to the hospital, where they install you in the emergency room next to a man with nine fingers who’s being interrogated by the police with questions that include: “So what happened after the second time he shot you?” At least, this is the way I personally experienced it (really).

And this, in my humble opinion, is almost as bad as not having started at all. For one thing, before you started, you got a nice endorphin boost from imagining how great it was going to be once you achieved your dreams. Now that you’re burned out, you have only exhaustion, and the fact that your dream seems to have betrayed you. Not only that, you’re losing tons of time in which you could have been making slower, more polished progress towards your goal, and this is definitely a tortoise-and-the-hare situation. A slower and more measured approach, involving actions you turn into daily or weekly habits, will result in more and better progress over time than an all-or-nothing, burn-the-candle-at-both-ends mania.

So…today, take a step to bring a dream into the realm of reality. If you want a dream house, search online for the houses you find prettiest and note down details, or make a room list, or doodle your perfect garden. Maybe look up some architects and contractors in your area. If you want to run a 5k this summer, go out and get yourself some running shoes, and maybe take a short walk to start breaking them in (also pick up some band-aids. Trust me). Write a few sentences of that short story you’ve been meaning to finish. Most importantly, set aside time tomorrow to do the same thing. Brainstorm where you can find a few minutes: a bus ride, a lunch break, a few minutes in the early morning.

You don’t have to finish today. You just have to start, and start making room for change in  your life.

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