Against Resolutions

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It’s that time of year when many of us think about the year that was, the people we were, the lives we led, and resolve to do something better for it this year.

In January, you’ll likely see more runners out on the streets, the gym fills up significantly, I imagine many people commit to practices like journaling or aim to start writing a blog. Then there’s dry January, vegetarianism, veganism, smoking cessation, getting that “summer bod”, reading more. The list goes on.

Self-improvement is a noble aim, of course. Personally, I abstain from making New Year’s resolutions, for a number of reasons.

Firstly, there is nothing inherently special about the New Year. Perhaps this makes me a bit of a killjoy, but New Year’s Eve is an arbitrary way to mark the passage of time. Yet we seem to believe that there is a magic about entering a New Year which will finally give us the resolve to achieve our goals.

Secondly, we believe that the New Year has changed us somehow. “New Year, new me”, as the saying goes. Except this couldn’t be further from the truth. Change does not occur in a single moment. It is an incremental process, not an overnight transformation.

You’re the same person as you were the day before, though probably severely hungover or embarrassed, and you have not been imbued with new powers of determination to stick to the new diet or “get fit”.

New Year’s resolutions also encourage us to rely on sheer will power alone, ignoring the fact that our behaviour relies on our habits and routine. Habit eats will power for breakfast, and as long as we believe that determination will get us through, we’re likely to fail.

Neither does the hype around self-improvement help at this time of year. There’s an atmosphere that you “ought” to read more or “ought” to lose weight. It becomes difficult to know what we want for ourselves and what we think we should want because it’s the right time of year to want it.

Finally, resolutions are for the most part vague, unrealistic, and made in jest. A resolution such as “write more” doesn’t mean anything. Neither does “get fit” or even “stop drinking”. And we never put a time-scale on our improvements, just that from this moment on life is going to be different forever, until the end of time, which is a daunting prospect.

So self-improvement isn’t the problem, it’s just that New Year’s resolutions are an ineffective way of improving the self.

For starters, we have to learn that change is about casting small votes for habits that we want to develop. If I want to write more, it’s no good trying to write 1000 words every day, and then feeling like a failure when I can’t. Better to get in the habit of sitting down at a desk with a pen and paper and write one sentence.

Starting small is better than not starting at all. The topic of habits is huge, and couldn’t possibly be covered here in any detail. Try this podcast instead.

A goal needs to be specific. If you want to lose weight, you need to decide how much weight so you know when you’ve met your goal. How often are you going to post on your blog? How many pages of a book are you going to read every day? How quickly do you want to run 10k?

If you’re serious about resolutions, then you need to write it down somewhere as well. Otherwise you’ll simply forget, or never review it, and it will fade into the obscurity of every other resolution that was made in the years and years before.

It might also be a good idea to keep a resolution to yourself. It can be much more satisfying to work away on something for yourself. If you realise that you’re not really interested in quitting booze or running more often unless everyone knows about it, then you’re probably doing it for the wrong reasons.

January is also the worst month to try out new things, especially if they’re at all punishing or unappealing, like waking up early to write or going to the gym. Everyone is broke from Christmas, returning to work in the cold, back to uni for exams. In this climate, it’s no wonder that resolutions die hard.

Above all, a life well lived seems to me to be one where you constantly take stock of the little things, of habits you want to change and lifestyle choices you’d like to make, reviewing goals and setting new ones. Self-improvement isn’t just for New Year.

David N Rose