There's no such thing as a fresh start

I've been finishing up the edits for my book, which makes this an obvious moment to pause for breath and regroup, work-wise – time to organize my various projects, tame my out-of-control inbox, sort out the jumble of files on my Mac desktop, and draw up some schedules in my fancy notebook like the pitiful productivity geek I am.

 

The big lure of all such moments – as you'll know if you have a similar weakness for time management systems, decluttering initiatives and suchlike – is the promise of making a fresh start. The unspoken hope is that you won't just change a few things for the better, but make a total break with the past. You'll reboot your life, leave disorganization and procrastination behind you once and for all, and do everything differently from now on. 

 

As you're presumably aware, this is a terrible mindset for actually making lasting changes. What you need, instead, are tiny goals and a commitment to incremental progress ("small wins"), plus a willingness to encounter failure after failure as you stumble toward improvement. To put it another way: fresh-startism is a form of perfectionism, and as with all forms of perfectionism, the solution is to stop being such a perfectionist – to resign yourself to the fact that things probably won't unfold as flawlessly as you'd hoped.

 

This much (as a recovering perfectionist) I've understood for years. But I've only more recently grasped the deeper point here, which isn't simply that fresh starts don't work as intended, but that there never are any fresh starts in the first place. Contrary to self-help cliché, the thing we perfectionists need to learn isn't that we're probably going to experience failure. It's that we've already failed, totally and irredeemably. 

 

This is liable to sound incredibly depressing, but since it's actually fantastic news, I hope you'll allow me to elaborate.

You have already failed

 

Behind our more strenuous attempts at personal change, there's almost always the desire for a feeling of control. We want to lever ourselves into a position of dominance over our lives, so that we might finally feel secure and in charge, and no longer so vulnerable to events. But whichever way you look at it, this kind of control is an illusion. It implies the ability to somehow stand back from or get outside of your life – which you never can, obviously, because you just are your life. 

 

What this means, for one thing, is that the perfectionist's fantasy of reaching her deathbed with a perfect record of accomplishments under her belt isn't just extremely unlikely, but doomed from the start, because (to mix metaphors) the years she's already lived are water under the bridge. All the time you've already wasted, the people you've disappointed, the opportunities you failed to seize – it's all already happened, and can never be undone.

 

It also means that the person attempting to leave the past behind, by making a fresh start, is one who's been completely shaped by that past. The self you're seeking to transform is the same one that's doing the transforming – so you're like Baron Munchausen, trying to pull himself out of the swamp by yanking on his own hair. You can never start life afresh, because you're hopelessly stuck in this life; there's no breaking through to another one in which everything's different and better.

 

The reason this is so liberating, for anyone with even a hint of perfectionism, is that it means you get to give up on the exhausting struggle to take charge of your life, so as to steer it in a new direction. You get to abandon all hope of one day finding the perfect time management system – or perfect relationship, job, neighborhood, etcetera – and relax back into the inescapable chaos and muddle of the one you have. 

 

And then – once you're facing your real situation, not fixating on a fantasy alternative – you suddenly find yourself able to start making a few concrete improvements, here and now, unburdened by any need for those improvements to usher in a golden age of perfection. This, in my experience, is the only way personal change ever really happens: by first seeing that it's always a matter of rebuilding the ship mid-ocean, making adjustments to a life you can't ever take back to port or trade for another. 

 

The American Zen teacher John Tarrant says, "freedom, waking up and fearlessness come down to the simplicity of 'Wait a minute, what if this is it?'" When I hear such exhortations to live in the moment, the fresh-start addict in me is quite capable of turning them into perfectionistic plans, too: "From tomorrow morning, I'll meditate every single day, and become the kind of person who lives in the moment!" But Tarrant's point isn't that you should live in the moment tomorrow. It's that this is it, right now, with all its odious imperfections – the tasks that remain unaddressed, the messes that haven't been cleared up, the enormous personality flaws that still haven't been corrected. And it's the only place I can ever hope to get anything meaningful done. 

To receive posts as soon as they're available, subscribe to my email The Imperfectionist.