On a cold January day, I tightened my peacoat and trudged through snow-sprinkled backstreets en route to Place Verte, my favorite Parisian café.
Near the end of December, I flew halfway around the world with no return in sight. After getting crushed by the entrepreneurial roller coaster, I exited the company I helped co-found with enough money to fund a 10-city Europe trip, starting with Paris. And for the last week, my only daily obligation was to sit huddled in a corner, sip on a café crème, and write.
It took a 5,000 mile plane flight to begin making sense of 2012. Throughout the year, I had jotted scattered notes about each month’s experiment. But every time I tried to write more than a couple paragraphs, I quit in a flap of frustration. My first draft of January’s resolution, for example, was so monumentally awful (actual original hook: “Us Californians are pretty liberal about weed”) that I didn’t write a single word for the next two months.
I thought the most important year of my life would be relegated to memories and bar stories.
But a little voice grew louder, amplified by the questions from friends. “Why aren’t you writing about this?”
I rationalized this several ways. I would have to honestly address some unsavory characteristics (see: smoking, drinking, swearing). I’m not a natural writer, and I knew that translating those 12 months into words would be like birthing a hedgehog. I had no time or energy after 60- and 70-hour workweeks.
But thousands of miles from home, those excuses held no weight. I never expected to write about my life, mainly because before I felt like I had nothing to say.
Now I did.
I combed through memories from the last 12 months as I watched the coffee steam mingle with my frosted breath. I started the year baked on my mattress in the living room of my apartment in San Francisco, and ended it in someone else’s living room at a New Year’s party swarming with Frenchies. Somewhere in between there was a story.
Over the course of those few weeks, disconnected thoughts coalesced into a narrative. Patterns formed. Ruthless self-examination uncovered my bedrock characteristics: the need for a challenge, pigheaded stubbornness, and the complete neglect towards the whims of other people.
There are habits that have stuck. I read on public transportation instead of mindlessly swiping my iPhone. I eat more vegetables. I walk more. Other habits have fallen by the wayside. This blog is evidence that, much to my parent’s disappointment, I still swear like a motherfucker. I haven’t touched a Bible in over a year.
The process to create new routines is both brutally simple and excruciatingly complex: a frantic burst of initial willpower and then a slow burn of steady persistence. For me, a change was cemented in 3 days. From there on out, it was maintenance.
But each month was different. Months that involved a change in body chemistry (e.g. giving up meat, masturbating) caused a sharp shock to my system (e.g. violent shits, sleepless nights). Experiments that involved a shift in communication (e.g. no Facebook, no phone) were pleasantly refreshing and easiest to maintain. Trials that challenged fundamental daily practices (e.g. no transportation, no music, no spending) were a grind that left me exhausted by the end of each month.
It was also fascinating to watch the bottomless well of grit and self-control spill out into other aspects of my life. I approached the turbulent process of running my own company with a steely stoicism. I rededicated myself to daily piano practice. And most importantly, the wealth in willpower fueled my grueling quest to write.
While formulating the introduction to Alex Gives Up as Parisians floated in a blur of scarves and cigarette smoke, I thought back to the beginning. It sounds weird to say, but that post break-up Facebook stalk fundamentally changed my life. Because I realized something. Something I knew theoretically but had now lived so vividly.
I can change my habits.