As I walk into my friend Lauren Rapp’s apartment east of Capitol Hill, she waves me through her galley kitchen to the refrigerator. “Dude, check this out,” she says, conspiratorially.
She has a lot of interesting stuff at her place: a fancy triathlon bike, worn-but-still-glossy Taschen art books, a gloriously strong spruce-scented candle that masks the smell of Swisher Sweets cigarillos — but I’ve never once known her to cook. She opens the top door to her nearly empty freezer, and there, front and center, is a miniature sofa chair, the perfect size for a Barbie doll, made out of ice cream sandwiches.
On top of the fridge there’s a dozen more: a tiny deck chair wound out of jump rope, a four-inch park bench made out of zip ties, a metal high-back made from a heart-shaped jewelry box with screws for legs. There are at least 40 more miniature chairs on her kitchen cabinets. And over in a corner of her living room, five black bookshelves with hundreds more, crammed three deep.
“I actually hate clutter,” she says. “So this is hard for me.”
Rapp, 33, is part of a growing number of people doing 365-day projects: They complete a task every single day for a year and post it to social media. There’s the celebrity hairstylist who winds a different braid every day, the Austinite who eats a taco every day. The wooden spoon carver. The anime doodler.
Perhaps it’s the new year’s resolution for the Internet age, or a quirky millennial form of meditation, or another example of the vacuous attention-seeking of social media. But for those doing it, the results have been compelling, exhausting and surprisingly life-changing. Even for the taco guy.
For Rapp, it all started in December 2014 with a failed attempt to finish the “The Artist’s Way,” the 1992 self-help workbook that’s supposed to jump-start your creative side. Rapp, who was frustrated and barely getting by with freelance Web consulting gigs, had been meeting with friends to do the workbook, hoping accountability to a group would push her through to the end. Something, anything, to break the procrastination.
“We made it through three or four sessions,” she says, laughing . “And then, you know, people get busy. Life gets busy.”
The book encourages meditation, so after what ended up being the last group session, she sat for 10 minutes, “which to me can be an eternity.”
“And during the meditation, during my wandering thoughts, I just thought it would be cool to make a little chair for my bookshelf, for a decoration,” she recalls. “Then I thought, ‘Well, you’re supposed to be meditating, not thinking about this!’ ”
She made the first chair out of cardboard and vintage paper travel games. It looks a little chintzy, to be honest. And Rapp, who has a degree in design art and Kai Kristiansen chairs in her dining room, is anything but chintzy.
Still, the next day she made another chair, also cardboard.
“And then the third day was the first time I was sort of seeking something specific,” which ended up being a mid- century modern lounge chair made from a Chick-fil-A box.
She posted a photo of each miniature to Instagram (@laurenrapp), and after a week of collecting likes, a commenter asked how long she was planning on doing this. He suggested a year.
With January approaching, it was about the time blogs and magazines (ahem, sorry) bombard readers with new-year-new-you suggestions. “And so,” she says, “you’re already thinking, ‘What am I going to do? Am I going to be a runner? Am I going to save the world?’ ”
One thought kept circling: “If you can’t commit to something fun, what’s the likelihood that you’ll commit to things that aren’t so fun?”
(Now here it must be mentioned that Rapp really. Loves. Chairs. After a wild and aimless adolescence in Springfield, Mo., she fell in love with vintage furniture and, at 21, bought her own vintage furniture store, which she ran while finishing her degree at Drury University.)
So she decided to go for it, to prove to herself that “being an artist doesn’t mean being flaky,” and committed to 365 days of miniature chairs. For Christmas, her parents got her a handheld rotary tool to cut, shape and polish materials for crafts, and she was off.
For hairstylist Sarah Potempa, committing to a 365-day project was also about kick-starting her creativity, by returning to her roots (pun intended).
Potempa, a bubbly 34-year-old who lives in Libertyville, Ill., but is based in New York, stresses that she “absolutely loves” her career, flying all over the world styling celebrities for red-carpet events, photo shoots and music videos.
But ... “You go into the room with a huge celebrity and there’s a whole team, and everyone’s like, ‘Okay, she’s wearing this, and this is the jewelry, and we’re thinking she should have a middle part and it should be straight,’ ” she says. “Like, ‘Here’s my image, do what I want.’ ”
And what “they” want is beach waves. Lots and lots of beach waves — those long, loose curls that make a starlet look perpetually windswept, whether or not there’s a fan blowing nearby. (Potempa is founder of the Beachwaver Co., which sells the “first-ever rotating curling iron” for the windswept girl at home.)
Potempa first started braiding as a high-school athlete, to get her and her teammates’ hair out of the way.
It was a skill that came in handy as she started her career doing high-concept editorial work — or, for the unfamiliar, weird hair. “Coat-hangers, cardboard” (again with the cardboard!) and lots of braids.
She missed it, and she wanted something uniquely hers, so, inspired by the viral hashtag #100daysofhappy, Potempa launched #365daysofbraids on Instagram (@sarahpotempa) on Jan. 1.
Devon “Bosco” Farr, 50, couldn’t have cared less about any of that resolution nonsense. As the multi-pierced floor manager at the Austin independent bookstore BookPeople, Farr spent the run-up to New Year’s Day chiding his younger employees about their planned lifestyle changes pinned to an arbitrary date. As a joke, he vowed to eat a taco a day.
“Because I eat tacos all the time,” he tells me on a sweltering Texas day over pizza (kidding, it was tacos).
It might be considered rather “Austin-y” to commit to a resolution for irony’s sake, but the ironic part didn’t last long.
“On the second day, I went to eat with a friend, and I was like, ‘I got to go somewhere where we can get a taco,’ and ... I ended up writing on [Facebook] about eating the taco with her, and it immediately became something completely different,” he says. “It wasn’t about the tacos at all. It was really about documenting a year with friends.”
‘The first couple months, dude, it’s awesome,” Rapp remembers. “It was very easy to find things that I can transform. I’d wake up thinking, ‘Oh, what’s today gonna bring?’ And it brought me things.”
There was an airplane’s safety information card on the post-holidays flight back to Washington. A plastic dinosaur (still one of her favorites). A Morton salt cannister (my favorite).
About a month in, she started the thrift store supply runs. A stack of staples. A deck of cards. A computer mouse. A mousetrap. Spatulas. An old Rolodex. A xylophone. At first she displayed the chairs on her radiator, and when that got crowded, she had the shelves installed.
Then she discovered food as construction material: asparagus spears, coffee beans, Spam, cheese crackers, s’mores and so much fruit. Food has the benefit of being perishable, so after the Instagram photo, the chairs are destined for the trash can (i.e., not being clutter).
But lest you think it has all been mindfulness and sunshine, Rapp confirms that, yes, she has wanted to give up. Many, many times. At the beginning it would take hours, though now she can do it in 35 to 45 minutes. She has had to cancel dates to make chairs. She has spent a lot of money. And oh, the lost sleep to figure out which glues work best on which plastics and metals.
The nadir was midsummer, when ideas were running thin and her rotary tool started breaking down. It’s rechargeable but would take progressively longer to charge, with progressively less power. She’d be up until 3 a.m., exhausted, waiting for it to get its strength back.
“Now I have the Dremel 3000,” she says, beaming at the deluxe rotary tool as if it were a sensitive and stable second husband. “It can cut through steel.” Soon she’ll cut a stethoscope into chair parts.
Potempa started with mostly three-strand braids, then discovered a braid-obsessed subculture in Sweden and Finland. They have YouTube videos. “I’d take their concepts and then make up my own,” she says.
Cornrows. French braids. Knot braids. Zipper braids. Pancake braids. Crown braids. Five-strand braids. Waterfall braids. Fishtails. Box fishtails. Dutch fishtails. French Dutch fishtail pigtails. She started pulling from crocheting and basket weaving. She did a 13-strand weave on her sister.
Most of the braids are on co-workers, family members, models and clients. Reese Witherspoon, Lea Michele and Anna Chlumsky all lent their hair to the cause. She did a zigzag cornrow on a stranger in a bar.
Both Rapp and Potempa say the daily exercise of discipline has opened the wells of creativity they hoped would be unlocked.
“I feel more confident, and like an expert,” Potempa says. “I’ve very much been a free spirit. I’ve learned that, like, I have control and discipline, and I am able to do something every day.”
And, Potempa says, the daily braid has helped her stay in the present moment. It feels like meditating. The braids are often so intricate she’ll chant the instructions to herself, like a mantra. “Right, over, under; left, over, under. ...”
Even the taco guy has found a payoff. Farr says his relationships have deepened this year because of the conversations he has had over tacos. He also estimates he has eaten tacos with 30 to 40 new acquaintances. People are intrigued when he invites them into his daily quest.
“I like people a lot more than I thought I did,” he says. “I always think of myself as kind of misanthropic. Turns out, not at all true.”
He mostly orders chicken tacos with corn tortillas and no cheese to avoid gaining weight. “I’ve actually lost weight,” he says, laughing.
Perhaps you’re thinking: Okay, but why must they post it to social media? Why not just set a personal goal and go after it?
There’s this pop psychology notion that the more we use social media, the more unhappy we are. The irony is that the “social” network actually makes us lonelier, right?
That’s not based on nothing: You’ve probably heard about the University of Michigan study showing that Facebook use predicts declines in well-being and life satisfaction over time. And the follow-up University of Houston study showing that it’s because we compare our messy lives to the perfect-seeming ones other people post. And surely you’ve seen the headline about how Facebook “likes” release the same chemical in the brain as cocaine (dopamine).
But what if, like red wine or time passing, social media is a neutral thing we can use well or poorly? What if instead of social media replacing real human connections, they are real human connections, and have been all along?
Consider a few other studies that haven’t gotten much play. Margaret Duffy, a researcher at the University of Missouri, found that people who used social media frequently to share “interesting or important aspects of their lives” — such as, say, meeting a personal goal — had no greater risk of depression. The users who “lurked” without contributing anything — they were the ones who got more depressed.
And the University of California at San Diego found that social media may be better at spreading happiness than sadness. A positive Facebook post reduced the number of negative ones by friends almost twofold, while negative posts had less of an effect on friends’ positive posts.
And is getting a dopamine hit a bad thing? After all, dopamine is the neurotransmitter that rewards us for good behavior.
Sean Young, who heads UCLA’s Center for Digital Behavior, has done a number of studies creating online intervention groups for people who use methamphetamines, have unsafe sex or just want to de-stress. Subjects who used the online communities with offline treatment had a greater chance of healthy behavior than those who used just offline treatment.
Young stresses that posting a goal on Instagram alone isn’t necessarily going to do much toward behavior change. But “it can be the start.”
On Rapp’s Instagram feed, commenters compete to make up the punniest name for each chair (one made of tree-shaped car fresheners was christened “Breath of Fresh Chair”). Her friends are “inspired by the commitment,” she says. And when she has wanted to give up — “Do I fake that I’m in the hospital?” she’d ask herself — it was thinking about the crowd that saved her.
There’s precedent for these daily projects having life-altering results in the case of 26-year-old Englishman Luke Cameron. In 2013, he was working part time in a clothing store when a close family friend passed away. More than 4,000 people showed up to her funeral with tales of her kindness, spurring Cameron to vow to do a good deed every day in 2014.
He posted them all to a blog, the Good Deed Diary, which went viral. No. 21, helping an old lady up the stairs; No. 54, feeding a homeless man.
Most readers loved it, but some accused him of attention seeking; others said some of his “good” deeds weren’t actually good (see: feeding a homeless man). But at the end of the year, he landed the job of national philanthropy manager, dubbed “the nicest job in Britain,” for a sustainable energy consultancy. He has spent 2015 touring a charity a week. (One-per-week projects are a thing, too. Check out the Instagram handle @52tables.) Next year, Cameron plans to start a charity to get at-risk youths involved in volunteering.
“When you do something like this, it changes your life in ways you can’t even comprehend,” he says.
A similar career shift has occurred for Rapp. In March, she landed a full-time job as the design and project manager for a real estate firm. She now spends her days creating interiors for renovated homes on the Hill, planning the wall colors, lighting and furniture, right down to the chairs.
The 365-day projects have given Rapp, Potempa and Farr most-interesting-person status wherever they go. Friends introducing them will announce their projects almost as soon as they say their names. And they get asked the same questions:
“How can I do this?”
For the love of God, pick something you really like.
“Does ‘daily’ mean midnight to midnight?”
No, it means from the time one wakes up to the time one falls asleep.
“Can you work ahead; say, do four in one day, then post them over the next four days?”
No, it should be one task completed per day. (Potempa readily admits she made an exception during New York Fashion Week, when she booked models for one long afternoon of braiding. Her schedule during the runway shows wouldn’t have allowed anything else.)
“Have you thought about what the last one will be?”
Yes, they have been thinking about it all year. (Farr says he’ll have a taco party and invite all the friends he broke tacos with. Potempa has considered a cornrow that spells out the digits 3-6-5. Or just cutting off her hair.)
“What happens next year?”
Cameron, who did his challenge in 2014, says he felt “incredibly deflated” after the end. But it helped to channel the energy into his new job.
All of them are eager to take their newly developed discipline muscles for a walk.
“It’s crossed my mind that I should do this for working out, or like, yoga every day,” Potempa says.
Farr plans to go through 2016 without driving a car — no easy feat in Texas — with a daily chronicle similar to his taco posts.
Rapp has kicked the Swisher Sweets and is counting the days since her last cigarette. So far, it’s working. As for the chairs, she loves the idea of a coffee-table book or a gallery show but is unsure how to pursue these; the appeal mainly seems that the chairs would be out of her apartment.
Still: “I don’t know if I can not make a chair on day 366.”
Since I noticed them in my Instagram feed in January, Rapp’s chairs have had me wondering: What would I do? What do I love so much that I could attempt it every day for a year — while still being interesting to myself and my community?
I’ve shoved the obvious answer — write! — out of my mind constantly, hoping for something less daunting. There’s dust on those half-written screenplays. I’m turning this very article in a week late; why would I assign myself even more words? I’m already sleep-deprived. And how do I even photograph “writing” for the social media component?
I’m still pondering this as I leave the newsroom, head up 15th Street and pass by an apartment with a sign in the window. It’s a black dry-erase board with neon-colored writing, like cafes use for the menu du jour. It reads: WRITING A FICTION NOVEL, DAY 241: FINAL EDIT.
It’s late now and the lights in the apartment are out, but I remember a few months back I saw a man sitting behind that sign, his glasses reflecting the computer light. I gave him a thumbs-up; he smiled and waved, and returned to typing.
Then I took a picture and posted it to Instagram.
Gillian Brockell is a digital video editor for The Washington Post. To comment on this story, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit washingtonpost.com/magazine.
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