Artillery Row

Self-help with Samuel Johnson

Improving ourselves takes good principles, not mere goals

Every year at this time, I think of Samuel Johnson, who failed at so many of his resolutions. He resolved to wake up earlier but never did, usually getting up around midday. He wanted to work harder. He was constantly asking God to stop him being so lazy — “oh Lord, enable me to redeem the time which I have spent in sloth” — but idleness dogged him all his life. He worried about going to hell for not using his talents to do more work, but he often rolled out of his house in the evening to spend the night with friends in a tavern.

As the world returns to work, we are all aware that, as W.H. Auden said, “Vaguely life leaks away.” Now is the time for resolutions. People start promising themselves they will improve this year and make those big changes. Lose that weight. Start that passion project. Read that book. Quit their job and change careers. This is the time when goals are set and dreams of the future are enjoyed. Look around and you will see it: people planning in notebooks, talking about what will be different, reading books about how to change.

You don’t win by setting a goal to win

We can learn something from Johnson’s resolutions, despite his failures. Most of his resolutions weren’t like this. They were about character and on-going behaviour. He aimed not at specific goals. He didn’t resolve to write a book, for example, or to increase the number of people who subscribed to his bi-weekly essays. Instead, in the new year of 1747-48, he asked God to help him think over his past life “to repent of the days and years I have spent in forgetfulness of thy mercy, and neglect of my own salvation”. He asked God to help him spend his time better to become more diligent in his duties.

This is a much more sensible resolution. He doesn’t want to meet a target, but to live in a certain way. Some days he will do better than others. Some years, too. He is reminding himself what sort of life he wants to live. He sets no goal about praying, worshipping or anything else. Instead, he reminds himself of who he wants to be. 

James Clear would call this focussing on processes not goals. When you want to achieve something or change something, what matters is the process you follow. You don’t win by setting a goal to win but by following a practice regime that makes you the best. You don’t lose weight by setting a goal for a target weight and going on a diet, but by evaluating how you live and changing your approach to food. Clear says, “Goals are good for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress.”

For Johnson, the resolution was part of the system. He wanted to be good and wise. There is no goal for that. Happiness is the work of a lifetime. You cannot reach it through milestones or with a progress chart. That’s why Johnson made resolutions throughout the year. For Easter 1777, for example, he resolved “to order my life, to read the bible, to study theology, to serve god with gladness”. In November 1752, he wrote himself a prayer to recite when he started a new area of study, asking God to help him “not to lavish away” his life on “useless trifles”. This is a version of having a card pinned above your desk with helpful reminders on. Like Marcus Aurelius, Johnson used his journal as a way of constantly bringing himself back to the right system of living. 

The beauty of this way of using resolutions is that it keeps you focussed. You will be much better off muttering “find something useful to do” — or, in Johnson’s phrase, “stop lavishing your life away on useless trifles” — than by setting yourself a series of goals. Goals can fade away. You can quit a goal, or change it. Frequently exhorting yourself to be the person you want to be is going to work much better than an arbitrary target. 

Johnson never got up early or cured his sloth

And it worked. Johnson never got up early or cured his sloth, but he produced a Dictionary, several series of essays, much poetry, vast amounts of journalism and the phenomenal Lives of the Poets. His life was often chaotic and disorderly. He had no morning routine. His habits were pretty abysmal. But by focussing on his character, using a system not a goal, he was hugely productive. He kept reminding himself what he wanted to be like, which kept him on course.

There are two Samuel Johnson sayings that I use in this way. The first is something he said to Boswell during a discussion on Good Friday in 1783: “You should not let yourself be delighted with error.” As I read or listen, I like to remind myself that no matter how appealing something sounds, how neat the story, however well it fits with my intuitions, I must not be delighted with error. That’s one way of trying to keep the system I use to write working well.

The second phrase I repeat to myself is from a letter Johnson wrote to his servant Frank Barber: “You can never be wise until you learn to love reading.” You may not want to be wise or it might sound pretentious when you see someone else claiming that they do, but this little motto reminds me that my reading should be purposeful. Read good books, slowly, carefully, repetitiously, but also read far and wide. Lex Fridman’s reading list was ridiculed on Twitter recently, but he embodies the spirit of Samuel Johnson far more than his carping critics. 

There are many things I need to achieve this year. Some of them will benefit from setting some goals. The most important thing, as I will keep reminding myself, is not to lavish my life away on useless trifles. 

So take heart from Samuel Johnson, discard your resolutions and find yourself a few repeatable phrases that will keep you living and working in the way you want.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover