September fresh starts and why you have always probably achieved more than you think

I don’t make New Year’s Resolutions any more. January is smack in the middle of my busiest time of year, it’s always bloody cold or raining, and everyone around me is undertaking a detox, which only makes me want to surrender myself more to Bacchanalian excess, provided such excess can be carried out from the sofa, and not interfere with my punishing Netflix schedule.

Instead, for me, like many people, September is the time of new beginnings. I was never overly keen on school, but, like anyone who ever went into further education, it’s hard to shake that ‘new term’ feeling, that sense of a new beginning. It’s also an excuse to buy new notebooks, of course, too, which always makes me happy; some atavistic sense recalling those virgin jotters of youth, all ready for our unformed scribbling and being backed with brown paper and scraps of wallpaper for reasons that, even after all these years, are unclear to me. What speaks of promise more than an empty notebook?

This sense of a new start is reinforced for me personally by the fact it’s my birthday in September, and the start of my busiest work season approaches after an annual lull. I am, theoretically, rested after my quieter season of summer (alas, that only ever seems theoretical – no matter how little I do, I remain as knackered as ever, so might as well just accept that’s my age, now) and ready to roll up my sleeves and get back to work. I am also, if I am entirely honest, now at the age when every birthday comes with a shuddering realisation of ‘shit, I’m [redacted] old and I still haven’t yet [life goal]’, which lends an urgency to the proceedings.

But it’s also that depressing feeling of ‘why am I not yet rich and why am I still single?’ (insert your own bete noire here) that makes me want to use September not just as a time for new resolutions, but a time of celebrating what I have achieved over the past year, no matter how small or large. This feels more important than ever this year, when I’ve felt less productive and less resilient than usual, the world has weighed a little heavier and seemed a little crazier, and the gap between the life I have and the life society expects me to have (partner, maybe-kids, full-time job, mortgage) seems to gape wider the older I get, and I feel like I am surrounded by people – many of whom are much younger than me – who are more together, more successful, more… grown up. (People are regularly surprised when I tell them how old I am, and I’m no longer sure if that’s because they think I look younger or they think, ‘wait, you still live like this?’)


Above: my September notebook haul

One of the things I started doing a few years back was keeping a journal in which I list my accomplishments each month, or stand out things to be grateful for. Sometimes these things are tiny – ‘found a great birthday present for X’, ‘booked tickets for the new Star Wars movie’, ‘had enough loyalty points at Waterstones to get a free hardback’. Often they are the kind of nebulous thing I am incredibly pleased about at the time but would have quickly forgotten, since they don’t, strictly speaking, advance my life in concrete or measurable ways: ‘got lots of nice messages about my blog post’, ‘X said something nice about my book on Twitter’. Sometimes, yes, they are impressive, exciting, or even life changing: ‘went to New York’, ‘got a new client’ ‘won an award’ – but it’s often easy to forget even the big things under the daily grind of ‘should do better’. How many of us have pretty much forgotten we ever took a holiday the minute we get back to work?

I’ve talked before about memory jars, and the usefulness of giving yourself irrefutable physical evidence that life isn’t terrible, and that good things do happen, even if, in the middle of anxiety or stress or depression you have forgotten that’s the case. My list journals serve the same purpose: reviewing them at the end of each month and again at the end of the year (each September) stops me falling into the trap of thinking I did nothing but lie on the sofa and mope – even when it feels like that’s all I have done, and even in those years when I haven’t so much made progress as simply stayed afloat.

Looking back year on year is also a useful way of realising how much you have ‘upgraded your normal’ without ever really appreciating it. We tend to celebrate discrete events when they happen, but they fast add up to become merely background wallpaper, a part of a reality we no longer notice. The new clients, the new writing gigs, the regular royalties, the fact that I can afford a cleaner and an accountant, and I live in a great flat by myself by the sea… it’s easy to fall into the trap of complaining about what is still missing in my life while neglecting to recognise that I now treat as commonplace things which, only a few years ago, seemed impossible and out of my reach.

It’s also important to remember that some things simply take longer than others and, to paraphrase the old saying, sometimes you need to judge progress by the seeds you’ve sown rather than the harvest you’ve reaped. Sure, I haven’t published a book this year (and I am, honestly, frustrated about how little I feel I have done in terms of this), but I’ve worked on a script, done a lot of theatre reviewing, done a lot of book promo, handled some website work and made progress – even slow progress – on a number of projects, so it’s not like I have been totally sitting on my hands. (Anyway, I put two books out last year, so I’m kinda ahead of the curve, right? Right?).

I’m not saying go into full on denial – sometimes you have a duff year and you’ve just got to put that behind you and move on – just that it’s easy to give into the nagging voice of comparison that is the fast track to unhappiness – ‘shouldn’t I be/have/earn more by now?’, and think that because you haven’t hit some arbitrary metric that you’ve failed. When the chances are, if you look closely, you’ve achieved far more than you think.

So, what are your September resolutions? Get your notebooks ready…


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