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New Year’s resolutions are over, so set yourself a slow challenge this February

It took Helen O’Hara 15 years to reach her aim of seeing every Shakespeare play, but it ended up being as satisfying as running a marathon

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By Helen O'Hara on

At this time of year, a lot of people are struggling with big goals: they’ve commenced training for a spring marathon, maybe, or they’re wondering how to proceed now that Veganuary is over – and most people are back on the booze.

Specific deadlines are useful, of course, for difficult targets or self-motivation – and periods of abstemiousness can be restorative. But there’s something to be said for setting yourself challenges that are a little less, well, challenging. I’m thinking about targets that are more like slow cooking; ones that you set bubbling away in the background and then get on with other things. You still end up with a delicious accomplishment, but without quite so much drama or self-denial. The real trick is to find something that you quite enjoy doing anyway – a task that pushes you a little but, really, only a little.

Let me give you an example. Soon after I moved to London, I began to worry that I wasn’t taking advantage of living in a cultural metropolis. I’d spent two years on trainee-journalist wages, so my idea of a big treat was nice-smelling shampoo and my nights out involved listening to richer mates talk about skiing trips while I sipped tap water. But I had come out the other side, with a job that paid just above a living wage, so I could finally have some fun. And, I wondered, what if I wasn’t in the city forever? What if I lived here for just a few years and never made the most of it because I was too busy with frivolities like rent and travel cards? I needed to do more London stuff, something that would keep me going for a while but not demand too big a commitment in the short term.

So, I set myself a goal: to see all of Shakespeare’s plays performed live. I didn’t set any time limit because I figured it would take a while for someone to put on Henry VIII (dreary) or The Two Noble Kinsmen (dull). I saw big star productions – Judi Dench, Tom Hiddleston, Ralph Fiennes, Claire Foy – and went to tiny pub venues (thanks for doing The Two Noble Kinsmen, White Bear Theatre!). My average ticket price was only about £20; I sometimes sat in the rafters or craned to see past pillars, but generally if you book early theatre needn’t cost the earth. I wasn’t terribly systematic about the whole thing – I usually remembered to check what was coming up at the Globe, but I didn’t always pore over listings so it took longer than it needed to.

It should be a challenge that doesn’t add more stress to the day – so, no time limits or absolute consistency should be required

Then again, speed was never the point. The idea was partly about seeing all of Shakespeare’s plays and learning a bit more about the most important writer in English, ever (the hype is justified. Except Henry VIII, which sucks). But it was more about keeping my eyes open, looking around at what’s on and experiencing life in the city. Friends often came with me, and the challenge sometimes turned out to be a good conversation topic on dates.

And, thanks to the Globe’s production of All’s Well That Ends Well – appropriately enough – I have just finished, a mere 15 years, or so, after I started. I simultaneously thought it would keep me going longer (who knew that anyone staged The Two Noble Kinsmen?) and am amazed that I have spent 15 years of my life with this notion driving me, at least to a small extent. I’m still going to keep watching the Bard, at least the good plays, but now I’m looking out for a new, similarly slow challenge.

The trick is that it has to be something fun, something that will add a little culture to life, and something that doesn’t add more stress to the day – so, no time limits or absolute consistency should be required. At the risk of sounding like your granny, a decade really does pass before you know it and this gives a little shape to those years. I might aim to visit every room in the British Museum or the V&A and take a really good look at the exhibits. You could pick an author and aim to read all of their books, or a director or film star.

I still can’t quote Shakespeare as casually as I’d like, and I’d need a revision session to figure out which of the comedies is which (cross-dressing, mistaken identity and sexual innuendo? Sorry, doesn’t narrow it down). Yet I still feel a sense of accomplishment in the whole thing that’s on a par with the marathons I’ve run, and all I had to do was buy some tickets. (Though I did sit through Henry VIII, for which I deserve a medal.) Now I just need to set myself another challenge to shape the next 10 years, or 20, or a lifetime. It may seem like forever, but I’m beginning to suspect that it will be gone in a blink.


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