How to keep a New Year’s Resolution and be happy

I am not going to ask you what you have chosen for your New Year’s Resolution (NYR) this time round—only whether you have not already broken some of them by this time. (As I write this post, it is the afternoon of 1st January in India.) Be honest. You have broken some, haven’t you? And, even if not, I mean, even if you are still holding strong, be honest: How long is it going to last? How long did your last year’s NYR last? For the year before that?

Umm… no. The idea is not to make fun of you, even as you read this post with a bit of a daze and all, but to let you know how I am going to keep my NYR this year. No, really.

You see, the key to keeping NYRs is to go a bit abstract about them right while making them. Make only those resolutions that you can actually keep, in a way. Easy, no?

For quite some time, while I was pondering whether I should continue blogging or not, another idea was gaining ground in my mind: whether I should begin writing a diary or not—whether writing a diary should be my NYR for this year, or not.

I then decided to both have it and also not have it, simultaneously.

I mean, I decided to write a diary, but not every day. That’s my NYR for this year. Easy to keep, no?

But thinking about writing diary was such a pleasurable act that I continued doing it—I mean thinking—for quite some time. Here are a few things which have emerged from the exercise. I am noting them down more or less completely at random.

The very idea of a diary is, really speaking, a compromise of sorts.

A diary is a solution offered for far too many objectives, for far too many disparate kinds of aims. But most essentially and saliently, a diary is both a planning tool and a recording tool. Some times, the two are in conflict or at least in competition for occupying the space in the diary; even if they are not, in any case, they have very different natures. And, the technology of a typical diary fails for each. Let’s see how.

In the usual diary format, you typically have, say, a page devoted to each day, but often only for the work-days, not the weekend days—even if perhaps many interesting things to note down in a personal diary might occur on week-ends. Then, often, this restricted and uniform space for a day is then subdivided into time slots. The time slots usually run very neatly from 9 AM to 5 PM. Then, there is a small area for marking general notes. These provisions are attempts to make the diary a tool for planning your time. But, everything in here is, I have found, actually problematic for me.

My day does not necessarily begin at 9 AM. The classes might be held from 8 AM, for instance. Or, when jobless, I may get up at 10 AM. Then again, I often find myself working beyond 5 PM. Weekends are, as I noted above, carry much more happenings for me.

None of my activities can be neatly divided into nice one hour slots. Even if I try to, at times the description for one time slot runs into several slots. Etc.

Most crucially, on those days when things are actually moving, they move just too rapidly for a single page to handle them all in sufficient detail. On the other hand, there are just too many days when there is absolutely nothing to plan for. I mean, I might be actually planning and executing even on these days, but these plans aren’t big enough that I can’t handle them simply “off the head.” I don’t need any explicit notings in my diary for me to be able to handle those plans well. So, the pages allotted to all such days simply go waste. And worse. As the new year progresses, seeing all those empty pages fills me with a bit of guilty feeling if not a depression about not having written the diary regularly, and this feeling finally snaps me towards giving up the very resolution of writing diary.

That’s for the planning part.

As to the recording part, once again, the same pattern emerges. On some days, I have just far too many things to note down. On other days, there would nothing of note to note except perhaps writing that I ate and slept. Or, that I taught a class. Or read a paper or two. I could easily do without noting such things; writing them down in a diary adds nothing to my life.

Another point. If I ask myself, of what use is any record that I might have at all succeeded in keeping, to be honest, the technology or the format of the usual diary fails me magnificently once again.

The paper-based diary does have that convenience of manually jotting down something very easily. (I don’t have to boot up the diary; flipping to a page is enough. An equation can be noted down and a rough diagram can be plotted so easily when I am writing by hand on paper. Etc.)

But this convenience comes with a cost. I can’t then also search for something with an equal ease. If I were to note down, say, a good paper on QM that I read on some one day, and some other good paper on some other day, then there is nothing in the technology of the ordinary, paper-based and bound diary that would allow me to collate together all such papers together. For data retrieval, I have to primarily rely on my memory—or flip feverishly through pages. The act of recording down does by itself help the memory, sure.  But still, the retrieval depends mainly on your memory—there is nothing in the usual diary format to help it. (One page per month is a bit too short a space to note all the important summary matters or metadata.)

Another point. The diary does not have anything to distinguish between different kinds of records. People tend to think of a diary as a handy place to note down many different things: phone numbers, email IDs, passwords, serial number of checks/DDs, amounts of expenses, visits of friends and relatives and their birth-days/anniversaries, tour schedule, class schedule, exam schedule, meetings schedules, research ideas, food recipes, song lyrics, whatnot. Precisely because its format is so bare-bones and so general, sometimes there is this temptation to overload the diary with noting down every thing of every kind. And, the end-result is inevitable: The important gets lost in the detail. And, that way, what is important on one day isn’t the most important thing to look some other day.

Therefore, soon, there comes a point of that you end up seeing the pointlessness of maintaining a diary. The NYR goes in the dust-bin.

Neat NYRs like regularly writing a diary fail regularly, and that’s not so much because people are inconsistent (or at least because I am that inconsistent), but simply because the format is too straight-jacketed for anyone to follow it well, and also too featureless to be put to really great use for information retrieval. In short, the NYR fails because the technology and the format is so useless—even if it is so attractive.

Instead of going on cribbing about it, I have decided to do something positive about it, this year. I am going to keep a “diary,” but in my own way.

I am going to try a “shoe-box” idea for a diary this year—I mean for the recording part of it, not planning. I am going to separate the planning and recording parts into two different diaries. The planning part will be handled by the usual diary. But the recording part will be handled by this idea of a shoe-box diary. The idea is the following.

I am going to buy a bunch of A4 sheets of various colors, and am going to print a simple heading on top of them: Date, Time, and Sheet No. (for that day), that’s all.

Whenever I have to record something in the diary, first, I am going to write the material on one of these papers. Then, after noting the date, time and sheet nos, I am simply going to drop the papers in the shoe-box.

Then, at some convenient (though probably irregular) intervals, I am going to empty the shoe box, arrange the papers in sequence, re-read the material, and systematically file the papers away in a separate file, possibly with summary sheets that might come in handy for review/retrieval at a still later date.

Since this diary is not going to be in a bound format, I could always use as many sheets for a single day as I would like, and I could always insert summaries or special notes helpful for information retrieval, any time I feel like inserting them.

Since the summaries would be written after a period of time, I should have a better sense of perspective about the happenings, and so, any summaries or notes for information retrieval should turn out to be better.

It might look like an overkill, but at least this year when I would be first trying this idea, I am going to try using different colors for different purposes: say, something like red for the money-related matters, blue for notings on hobbies etc., and plain white for research ideas, paper drafts, official work, etc. All of them would go in the same shoe box, to be sorted out later on.

Of course, as I said, I am also going to have the usual kind of a diary for general notings related to planning. But I would be clear, this year, that it doesn’t have to be written regularly; its pages don’t have to look “full” to me. I could perhaps note down a few points by way of recording (as against planning) in this diary, too, but the notings here would be more like metadata. The real stuff would be written on those sheets put in that suggestion-box like container of a shoe-box. (In my case, it actually is going to be a shoe-box, not a cereal box. Recently, I bought a pair of shoes for attending interviews.)

That way, I also thought of this idea of writing emails to myself, by way of keeping a diary. The emails would be going via just a localhost account, not via the ‘net. But then I realized that I probably draw rough diagrams and write equations, or jot down my thoughts in a rather unstructured way quite often, and so, emails wouldn’t fit so well. Yet, there was something neat about this idea of “reporting” the day’s happenings by emails, even if strictly only to myself. Emails are a bit more formal a medium and so in writing them, one tends to tidy up one’s writing better. Also, there is that sense of completion as you click the “Send” button—and this was a feature which I did want to retain for my diary. But since my content has a lot of diagrams and equations, etc., emails wouldn’t be suitable. So, I instead came up with this idea of using paper sheets and dropping them into a suggestion box-like container.

Keeping the papers in a file wouldn’t help; filing requires a bit too much systematic-ness—something that I cannot always manage. But noting things down on paper, and just dropping them in a box, to be looked up only sometime later, is something that could work by me. It should. The papers would remain safe and secure in the shoe-box. And, unlike a file or a diary, with the shoe-box, there would be an element of “drop it and forget about it”—a sense of completion, as it were.

So, there. That’s my NYR for this year. I am certain that I am going to keep it because its very formulation itself is such that it could at all be kept—even by me. Perhaps, I may end up being a more regular diary writer, too, after all. “Drop the day in that shoe-box,” or something like that could be the slogan to remember it. … Oh well, I may not be fully regular, but still, this way, I could possibly be much more regular. And, improvement is what a NYR is all about, what say?

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And, oh, as I was organizing my thoughts for writing of this post, I received a (very) welcome news. Recently I had attended a couple of interviews for professor’s positions, and I have just been informed by telephone that at one of those places, a job offer is being made to me. Though the appointment letter would arrive later, this news is a great way to begin a new year, isn’t it? … OK, since it is so, I will sure add a “Song I Like” section here later on, say, tomorrow or so, when I come back to possibly further edit and streamline this post.

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A Song I Like:
(Hindi) “kaun disaa mein leke chalaa re…”
Music: Ravindra Jain
Singers: Hemlata & Jaspal Singh
Lyrics: Ravindra Jain (?)