With a week off between Christmas and New Year’s, I decided to tackle two projects. The first was to cook traditional Japanese Tonkotsu ramen. Then, I was going to audit my closet and donate the clothes I never wear. With no plans (outside of a few Christmas Day eating obligations), those two goals seemed absolutely realistic, if not a bit of an underachievement given the expanse of free time.
Nine days later, as I steeled myself for a return to work, I had made the ramen (it was terrible), but I never once touched the closet. My excuse: I was too busy.
Of course, I wasn’t busy—I had filled my free time with video games, books, dog-walking, and multiple butcher shop trips in search of strange cuts of pork—I was just too busy to clean the closet.
Oddly enough, I’m always “too busy” to do the things I don’t want to do.
I once read a good piece of advice (sorry whoever said it, I can’t remember!): if you wouldn’t put it on your calendar for tomorrow, don’t put it on your calendar for next week. The expanse of time makes it easier to commit to something you don’t want to do simply because it’s temporally distant. But if you won’t do it tomorrow, in a week, you still won’t want to do it.
“Busy” works the same way. If you’re too busy for something today, then you’re going to be too busy for it next week. And it’s not just closet-cleaning. It’s starting a blog, writing a book, learning guitar, or finding a new job. You make time for the things you want to do and find excuses to avoid those you don’t.
Busy has become the catch-all on which we hang our hopes and dreams.
In a book I read recently, the author posed a trite thought experiment: imagine you’re about to spend the rest of your life on a deserted island. Outside of a few basic necessities, you can only bring ten books. Which ten would you choose?
He goes on:
“Trying to decide on a list is instructive, and not only because it may help you identify the books you would most like to read and reread. That, in fact, is probably of minor importance, compared with what you can learn about yourself when you imagine what life would be like if you were cut off from all sources of amusement, information, and understanding that ordinarily surround you. Remember, there would be no radio or television on the island, and no lending library. There would just be you and ten books.”Mortimer J. Adler
The first book that came to mind was Plato’s Republic. It’s been on my reading list for a while. It would be challenging. I could spend a lot of time thinking about it. Re-reading it would probably unearth new insights I missed the first or second time. Ten books like that would keep me busy for a while. And yet, in my regular, non-island life, I can’t bring myself to spend the $7 to just do the dang thing. It’s too much work and too large of a time commitment. I just don’t want to.
So, I’ve come to the sorry conclusion that I may die without ever reading The Republic. And you know what, that’s fine. I don’t think my admittance to heaven or hell is contingent on my reading Plato. It’s just a dumb goal I’ve set for myself. One of many. Some I’ve completed to crickets. Others, I’ve abandoned. At 10, I wanted to become an architect, but I’m as far from that goal today as I’ve ever been. And that hasn’t affected me one bit.
The truth is that we either achieve personal goals or quit (you can’t fail, because if you fail and still want to succeed, you can just keep trying). Some of those, like eating healthier, saving money, or losing weight are hard but possibly worth pursuing. But when it comes to others, like reading books, or writing every day, there’s no shame in deciding to quit. The only real shame is in being dishonest with yourself, with lying about your “busy-ness,” with guilting yourself over a goal you don’t really want to pursue. The only person you’re letting down is yourself…and that’s generally pretty easy to get over (and if it’s not, then you know you need to keep trying).
So here’s what I’ve come to realize: if I have to wait until I find myself marooned on a desert island to read Plato, then perhaps I never will. And guess what? No one will care…which is actually kind of a relief.
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