It’s the time of year where we all get a rush of blood to the head and decide this is the year we’re going to try new things, we name a couple and then we… well, forget about them, in a couple of weeks. However, in the recent release The 52 Week Project, Kiwi author Lauren Keenan (Te Ātiawa ki Taranaki), took this idea and bloody ran with it, deciding she would do one new thing a week for an entire year. Although, as she says, it doesn’t always have to be a new-year-or-no-deal kind of thing. “One thing I want to make very clear is that I didn’t start on the first of January,” she laughs down the Zoom from her temporary home in Honolulu. “I started in the middle of winter, 8 August. So you can just… start. It doesn’t need to be this big ‘New Year’s Resolution’, it can just be little tweaks to your life that can happen at any time.”
For Lauren, that time started off on the Friday night of ‘Twenty-Seven Rejections Of Doom’. Newly separated from her husband, and away from their kids for a night, Lauren reached out to 27 different people to try and make plans and one by one, all of them fell through. It was a horrendous situation that anyone who’s ever been newly single will be aware of and it prompted Lauren to make a big change – and so, The 52 Week Project was born. The 52 weekly challenges ranged in difficulty and commitment, from wearing red lipstick for the first time through to swimming with sharks. It makes for a delightful, funny and relatable book, which is particularly impressive when Lauren is so self-deprecating about her previous writing history. “I’ve been nipping at the heels of writing for quite a while now; I really like pop psychology, so I’ve done general articles on that. I’ve written a book that wasn’t very good and a collection of short stories, many of which were published, which was great,” she says. “But this one… I had been trying to be strategic; second-guess the market. But that wasn’t the case for this one – I think if I’d been trying to second guess the market, I would never have written that… Most pop psychology is quite earnest and comic writing is funny and I’ve never seen another example of someone putting them together.”
For each of her challenges, Lauren places them in the context of why are a big deal and her reasons are very personal – for instance, why getting her make-up done at a professional make-up counter was scarier than trying stand-up comedy. In an early chapter, Lauren details how once at school, she was voted ‘Third most ugliest’ and how that label stuck inside her head for years, to the point where she gave little thought to make-up or colourful clothing, because her teenage-scarred self was always thinking: ‘Why bother?’ But three of the challenges: wear red lipstick to a party, get a professional makeover and get her ‘colours’ done, made a difference that has become one of the most long-lasting changes since she finished the project. “I’m wearing bright pink as we speak,” she laughs. “As women, we’re taught to kind of camouflage ourselves. You’re told when you’re young that black is slimming and now it’s like… I don’t actually care? It’s not actually that slimming, either. Whether you wear black or whether you wear bright pink, it isn’t going to make someone think you’ve just shed 20kgs, so you might as well have some fun.”
A resurgence in interest in all things beauty also tapped into another myth Lauren says she had believed for too long. “I used to think that caring about beauty made me a bad feminist, and it was a real wake-up call,” Lauren says of her appearance-based challenges. “I’m seeing it with a lot of my girlfriends, as well; we’re now starting to embrace things we pushed aside for so long… because it’s fun.” When it comes to raising a daughter in this same beauty dichotomy, Lauren says it’s path she still doesn’t know how to walk. “I don’t want her to care too much but I also want to give her the tools.” The challenge changed how she felt about how achievable beauty was as well. “Beauty isn’t a meritocracy, you still can’t change your fundamentals. But you can do a lot more around the edges than I ever gave credit to.”
One of the most universal challenges was Lauren looking to reduce her time spent on social media, after realising she was using the addictive programs too much (we’ve all been there). She decided to go two weeks cold turkey, which is one of the statements so many of us make flippantly – with the knowledge that in reality, it would be hard. It was, Lauren says, very, very hard. So much of life is online now – in just the two weeks she was offline, she missed a book club meeting, turned up to the wrong place for a gym class and also missed the fact that a former high school friend had had a baby. But it taught her some good lessons on how to use the apps mindfully (even if she says the onslaught of Covid-19 news in March caused a brief, and understandable, relapse). “What I’ve landed on is an hour off, an hour on – so I’ll give myself 1,2 or 3 hours off, and then I’ll go back online again,” she says. “And the other thing I’ve found useful is using my laptop instead of my phone. So, mindfully, sitting on my chair at a table and going through the news and social media for half an hour. I enjoy it that way – it’s better than the random scrolling that is just constant.
Picking up more mindful activities like monitored social media use and doing cross stitch as a creative way to keep her hands busy, to avoid using her phone so much. While doing 52 things in one year did become a bit of a burden towards the end, Lauren says she was very proud upon completion – and had a healthier, happier outlook, life and relationship to show for it. Her advice for those looking to make changes to their life is to start small, she says. “No-one even knew I was doing some of those little things – like the lipstick, the beauty counter, getting a manicure. It doesn’t always have to be ‘Instagram worthy’. It doesn’t have to make for a good story. It just has to be something that you, yourself do.”
The 52 Week Project by Lauren Keenan, published by Allen & Unwin NZ, RRP $32.99