Make plans with open palms
And other helpful advice from Sarah Von Bargen.
It happens every December. As the month winds to a close, I start daydreaming about the many habits I could adopt in the coming year. I wonder how many minutes I could meditate, how many miles I could walk, how many meals I could plan. I imagine changing all the things!
And then I wind up thinking about Sarah Von Bargen, who would gently remind me that habit-building happens one small change at a time.
I discovered Sarah in 2018, after an acquaintance raved about her online habit-building course. At the time, I was feeling particularly aimless and hoped that Sarah’s teachings could point me in the right direction.
They did. Sarah’s course was great: it was filled with actionable ideas, research-backed advice, and built-in community. I dutifully followed Sarah’s tips and, for a full year, managed to walk 10,000 steps a day, read a book a week, and truly commit to writing this newsletter.
After completing her habit-building course, I followed Sarah on Instagram, where she generously shared all sorts of useful advice to her nearly 15,000 followers—tips such as how to make to-do lists less overwhelming and stop wasting our limited self-control. Almost all of her posts pointed to some kind of course or workbook she’d created, which made sense—since 2007, she’s been producing advice-based content for the internet and making a living doing so.
That’s why her latest move came as such a surprise. In December, when I reached out to Sarah in hopes of interviewing her for this newsletter, she told me she was quitting the internet in 2022. No more helpful workbooks. No more Instagram posts. No more selling online courses.
“That doesn't mean I'm not interested in being interviewed,” she said. “But it might reduce your interest in interviewing me!”
Quite the opposite: I was now even more interested in talking with her! As someone who’s wrestled with getting off social media, I couldn’t wait to hear about what brought her to this decision and how she was planning to spend her offline time. And, selfishly, I was hoping to get some of the solid, practical advice she’s known for. She delivered on all fronts.
Instead of creating online courses, writing workbooks, and sharing tips on Instagram, Sarah now works as a copywriter and consultant. She crafts internal manuals and employee handbooks for companies, ghost-writes blog posts for big corporations, and creates continuing-education courses. “It’s unsexy work, but it’s relaxing and lucrative—and that’s exactly what I need right now,” she told me.
The biggest factor that pushed Sarah to make this career switch was, as she put it, “honest-to-God burnout.” She was facing more competition with online courses, discovered that tools like Facebook ads weren’t as effective in reaching new audiences, and felt the exhaustion of turning every epiphany into a digestible Instagram post. To make matters worse, Sarah added, she was falling into the comparison trap of social media.
“There finally came a point where I said, ‘I don’t think [being online] is healthy for me anymore,’” Sarah admitted. “It was making me feel bad.”
Stepping away from more than a decade of being a “public internet person” wasn’t an easy decision. Eventually, though, Sarah’s own advice convinced her that she was making the right move.
“One of the things that I teach—and truly believe—is that envy is a tool,” Sarah said. Over time, as she wrestled with things like burnout and comparison, she couldn’t help but note that the people she was most envious of were friends who didn’t rely on the internet for their professional success.
“It was a lightbulb moment for me,” she said. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, Sarah, you can do this right now.’”
So she did. Sarah announced her sabbatical, reached out to several companies, and lined up a variety of copywriting gigs—work she can do without having to create Instagram stories or run Facebook ads. She’s now living a smaller life, spending her time adjusting to family changes, fixing up an historic home, and simply “being a person in the world.”
It’s been a welcome shift, and a surprisingly easy one. But there is one stumbling block. Sarah—a woman who made a living off of sharing evidence-based tips and tried-and-true advice—now lacks an outlet for all of that wisdom.
“When I announced this break, my husband was like, ‘Oh no, am I going to be your receptacle for all of your thoughts now?’” Sarah joked.
I was more than happy to step in and absorb that advice. Here are three of my favorite tips from our conversation.
Make plans with open palms
Sarah’s main tip for 2022—a year that, by all accounts, is already off to a rocky start—is to “plan with open palms.” No gripping tight onto plans or expectations.
“There’s zero white knuckles,” she said, holding her hands aloft as we talked on a video call. “My hands don’t even close. I’m just balancing plans in my open palms.”
One way to do this, Sarah said, is to set low expectations and small goals. For her, those plans include painting the doors in her house, supporting her stepson in finding an internship, helping her mother-in-law get settled into their home, and, perhaps, enjoying a three-day weekend in nearby Milwaukee.
“If that's all that happens in six months, great,” she said with a laugh. “It's not sexy, but it's the truth, and I think we'd all feel a lot more stable if those were the sorts of goals we allowed ourselves—especially now.”
Celebrate efforts over outcomes
Speaking of goals, Sarah’s next piece of advice is to track and celebrate efforts over outcomes. “There are so many things we can’t control,” she said. “But we can usually control the efforts we make.”
Instead of celebrating an article pitch getting accepted, for example, Sarah advises setting a goal of sending a certain number of pitch emails—and rewarding yourself when you hit that number. Or instead of aiming to hit a goal weight, aim to go on a set number of walks.
As she builds her copywriting portfolio, Sarah plans to adopt this approach. “I can't control who has a budget to hire me, but I can control how many emails I send,” she said.
And after she sends a set number of emails to professional contacts? “I’m going to treat myself with something like a massage.”
Enjoy being a beginner
Finally, Sarah’s offline sabbatical also means a break from being an expert.
“I’ve been thinking about the role that I played for the last 14 years,” she said. “By constantly sharing insights and teaching others, I didn’t make as much space in my life as I could have for being a beginner or being a learner.”
Now, Sarah’s looking forward to the experience of having an epiphany “and not doing anything with it.” Instead of immediately sharing her thoughts with others—and turning those thoughts into an opportunity to promote another online course—she’s excited to give her brain room to roam.
“This is going to be a season of learning,” she said, taking a deep breath. At that moment, she looked especially content.
Although I’ll miss having access to Sarah's immediate insights, she’s still leading by example. I expected to have a conversation with her about setting ambitious habits, but wound up being reminded what it means to slow down and enjoy a quieter season of life.
We could all learn from that.
p.s. I’m hoping to do more interviews like this one in 2022. If you know someone with a sweet, dumb brain who you’d like to learn from, let me know. You can reply to this email, leave me a message, or share in the comments on this post.
p.p.s. I’m working on a special subscriber-only email for the end of this month that includes some of my personal reflections on Sarah’s takeaways. If you’re interested in reading that and you’re not yet a paying subscriber, now’s a good time to join!