On making 2024 less than 2023

I’m no different from most people in that the turn of a new year inspires reflection over the previous twelve months. Sometimes this recollection even yields resolutions, or, as my aunt exhorts us to call them, intentions. It’s rare, though, for my reflection to have one dominant theme or for the resulting intention to be so crystallized weeks or even months before the outgoing year clocks out.

In 2024, I will say no.

Anyone who asked me how I was doing during 2023 likely heard some variant on “busy as hell.” I started a great new job, continued to host pub quiz, helped run San Francisco’s supporter-owned soccer club, tried to keep up my gym routine, and did my best to maintain relationships (whether professional, familial, friendly, or romantic), amidst plenty of miscellany. That miscellany encompasses many subcategories that carry different degrees of obligation; merely enforcing a minimum threshold on that axis would likely give me the breathing room I often found myself craving. Thus, at bottom, this problem is one of simple FOMO. It’s a common feeling and, moreover, an understandable one. For my part, on some level, I feel a strong pull to fit as much (ethical) experience and fun into my life as possible before the world becomes an unlivable hellscape in one way or another, a front on which I can’t say I’m an optimist. Nonetheless, it can’t come at the expense of one’s health or sanity. I have to know my limits and do a better job choosing the best way to fill the time left over once genuine responsibilities are fulfilled.

I could stop this writing here, but I want to dive deeper into the category I conspicuously haven’t mentioned, the reason I’m putting this text on my mostly disused website instead of a quickly swallowed Facebook post: my involvement in puzzles.

As my predominant hobby for a solid 25 years now, puzzles take up a lot of time in my life. The time I spend and could spend on them has exploded in recent years as the number of sources of quality puzzles of all types has done likewise. Escape rooms, indie crossword blogs, logic puzzle purveyors, contests, Kickstarters, Patreons, charity packs, video games, books, you name it. The simple truth is that it has become utterly impossible to get to all the worthwhile puzzles out there. The MO of FOMO is now inevitable.

In September, I had a setback, the details of which are unimportant, that gave me a wake-up call. I realized that I was spending too much time on leisure activities that, while still fun to some extent, had grown too large and taken on in my mind a far greater level of obligation than they actually had. In particular, I had ever-increasing backlogs of puzzles from various sources, and I had to admit to myself that I would never get to them, or at least that I would feel a need to rush through them if I did. My longtime justification of “well, they’re just sitting on my computer for whenever I feel like doing them” could no longer overcome the psychological weight these backlogs bore.

So I cleared the decks. I apologetically emailed puzzlemakers for whom I was doing test-solving and withdrew my services, which felt bad because I know I was valued and I was proud of however much or little I improved the puzzles. I deleted entire folders in my Dropbox’s bulging To Be Solved directory, which felt bad because they were organized and represented many hours of fine puzzling. I unsubscribed from several puzzle subscriptions I held, which felt bad because I like supporting good constructors and my departure was in no way a reflection of their work. And I sent a message to my Mystery Hunt team informing them that I could no longer be relied upon for significant contributions.

Which felt really bad. When my team won the MIT Mystery Hunt in January 2023, I had some misgivings; on some level I foresaw the chaos ahead in my year. Nonetheless, I knew that being part of the construction team for a well-received Mystery Hunt was a source of well-earned pride, and I set my sights on being a strong contributor. To put it briefly, I’ve failed. Even before my epiphany in September, most of my puzzle ideas withered, I remained largely ignorant to both the creative and technical aspects of the Hunt, and I routinely allowed myself to opt out of test-solving. I’m trying not to be too hard on myself (a struggle for me in general), as I do have my fingerprints on some pieces of the Hunt, and there’s still room for me to be helpful in the next two weeks. Even so, I haven’t been near the teammate I’d hoped I’d be, and I very much appreciate those who have been far more dedicated than I. I think they’ve done a great job and Hunt will go swimmingly, but if something goes wrong or if you don’t like it, I hope you blame not them but people like me, who probably could have found a way to do more and didn’t.

Steering back to my thesis, I certainly don’t mean to imply I’m stepping away from puzzles entirely. Far, far from it. Events like the Mystery Hunt, the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, and the National Puzzlers’ League convention remain highlights of my year. I still will spend a generous amount of time solving at my leisure; for instance, I’m currently enjoying a leisurely Puzzle Boat 10 cruise with my small team, and I’m absolutely salivating for Islands of Insight next month. I’m also hoping to give better service to my middling meta-solving skills; I missed an embarrassing number of Gaffney solutions this year largely because I was often loath to sink more time into them when my first effort was unsuccessful.

There’s likely still calibration for me to do. I may well shut off even more faucets of puzzles, to use a clumsy metaphor. In contrast, I shouldn’t cut myself off from the idea of reintroducing some of what I’ve cast aside, though this is likely to be minimal at best. When I stopped catastrophizing my situation in September, I deemed it merely an impetus to action I was overdue to take anyway. I’ve relieved a lot of pressure and I’m not even remotely worried about being bored.

Ironically, I’ve put too much time into this essay, so I’ll end it here. Here’s to an emptier 2024.

PS. I’m also probably about to leave Twitter or X or Elon’s Neo-Nazi Blue-Check Revue or whatever the hell it’s called now. Find me on Bluesky.
PPS. I turn forty on Election Day. That’s gonna fucking suck.
PPPS. This is not a puzzle.