A monthly note from our editors with some thoughts on theory, dilemma, and the next big thing.
Past Letters Entries
The Downward Spiral
To The Swamp
Make It Through
Too Close to Call
This Is Make-Believe
Must Have Slipped My Mind
Fire to the Prisons
Take Us to Your Leader
Letters by Hanna Hurr
Making Better Decisions in 2K15
January is always sold to us as this arbitrary opportunity to change our lives. In newsstands everywhere, magazine covers urge us to seize the new year to finally “lose weight,” eat “healthier,” learn to “love” ourselves, become better “lovers” or “parents” or “workers”.
As cynical as I am about these marketing ploys, I also fall for them over and over. I write self-improvement lists with goals for the next year. And not ones I would share on twitter. Slightly embarrassing ones that probably haven’t changed in ten years: how I’m gonna work out every day, cook wholesome meals, eat vegetables, wake up early, read a book a week, write more letters. But also ones that feel real and necessary: how to be a better friend, new things I wanna learn, how I’m gonna make rent doing things I enjoy instead of taking shitty jobs that kill me from the inside. I almost don’t trust people who claim not to fall into this kind of thinking. But if that’s you, congratulations – it seems sane.
Even as we approach this call for self-improvement with cynicism, we’re aware of it, and affected by it in the same way that we celebrate Valentine’s Day with a mix of irony and enthusiasm. These arbitrary markers of change may give us the excuse to call bankruptcy on old projects and preoccupations, a permission to look forward instead of pampering our past obsessions. To say “that’s so 2014” about topics we feel have been exhausted. But there’s obviously something very suspicious about the new year and the sudden spike of energy it supposedly brings. Because what has changed, really?
My suspicion toward (and implication in) this paradigm crystalizes in the movement to track every aspect of one’s body by collecting data like sleep cycles, activity, eating patterns, or vital signs. Or perhaps more commonly (advertised): wearing gadgets and using apps that do it for you.
I don’t own a FitBit and I stopped using Sleep Cycle after I started sharing my bed every night – the phone’s censor can’t tell one person’s movements apart from another’s and thus gives wildly inaccurate estimates, so using it becomes pointless. (Apparently it’s super inaccurate anyways!) But I do have a fancy smartphone. My iPhone 6 automatically tracks my steps using the Health app, and gives me weekly or monthly averages. I’ve discovered that my twice daily walk to/from the office lands me at about 10,000 steps and this is frankly one of the reasons I happily walk there every day instead of taking the bus. When obsessing about such things, what fantasy is it we’re chasing? And what does it really produce?
Well, the flip side of such gadget and app obsessions is that, with every sign-up, we agree to produce data for free to companies for whom this is more valuable than cash. And it is from the perspective of the data collectors that we look like suckers for buying into these trends. Once the instant gratification of reaching some new level or record or average wanes, we have to do it all over again to maintain this level. But the data is there forever, accumulating with all the rest of it, ready to be sold and re-sold and recombined and manipulated. With data accumulation starting to resemble capital accumulation, you could say the market of self-improvement regimes and products is really just an immaterialization of the market for consumer goods. Instead of buying things to fill our lives, decorate our homes or apartments, we buy apps, audio books, sign up for courses or gym passes, subscriptions. Instead of buying an object, we buy into a routine or a lifestyle. Whenever we manage to keep it up, the satisfaction will inspire us to come back for more.
That our self-improvement obsessions are less about concrete change and more about endless work (for us) and accumulation (for somebody else) is also evident in how we formulate our goals. In so many of the magazines, life coaches and lifestyle writers will be like: “Remember to set realistic, concrete goals! Otherwise you will not be able to keep up with it!” The reason this reminder has to be made over and over is because the idea of concrete goals is completely artificial. There’s no limit to the self-improvement. The intuitive thing is to never stop. “Sleep better,”, “work out more,” “eat healthier”. At no point can you say “I’m done.” The natural inclination is to become a self-improvement machine. Everybody knows that we should do these things, and feel guilty when we don’t – which is always, because we’ve been raised with the fear that neglecting any of these factors can lead to sickness or death.
Sure, we feel better when we eat well and exercise and sleep enough and don’t intoxicate ourselves – and there are definitely reasons to change habits when things get out of hand – but let’s not be tricked into living our lives for these self-improvement programs. Because, let’s be real, if we structure our lives around our fear of the body’s deterioration, we’ll spend all our time and money and brainpower thinking about eating enough kale, using the right moisturizer, working every muscle group, drinking enough water, meditating, and so on. People do, but it seems that’s all they do.
The point isn’t that we can’t change. The point is that we shouldn’t be feared into occupying ourselves with self-improvement regimes that don’t help us do what we want to do with our lives. The whole world smokes and drinks and eats shitty food and works difficult jobs and does it all over again. Improving our bodies and mechanizing our habits simply makes us better at it.
We are insanely malleable and can become machines towards whatever it is we set our minds to. But we have to choose what to focus on. The hard part is making that decision. To, instead of procrastinating our lives away by staying busy fulfilling the goals prescribed to us, say, fuck it, I’m gonna focus my energy on some insane thing that counts.
So I’ve decided to try to be really selective about my self-improvement hysteria in 2K15, and I encourage you to do the same. Stop beating yourself up if you can’t quit smoking right now, if your focus lies elsewhere. Let’s not waste our time with things that drag us down, drain our energy, or make us unhappy. Choose your battles and projects wisely.
This is our January Issue, themed “The More Things Change”. This is also our 12th one – next month will be our anniversary issue. Happy New Year from the Mask Magazine team!