As far as I can remember I made no resolutions last year. That’s most unlike me, so this year they’ve returned with a vengeance, not least because the new year also brought a significant change in my personal circumstances. I’ve tended to scribble them down in the back of my notebook, in vaguely coded shorthand, which isn’t always wise. One from two years ago reads ‘Make Imminence’, and since about a week after I wrote I’ve had no idea what it means. This year’s list is coded more sensibly, and is as follows:
31st December 2011
They may look like categories, but each has a very specific meaning. Which, of course, I shan’t disclose. You can probably guess the last one.
Enough about me for now, the main purpose of this post is to discuss the concept itself. I was inspired to do so by a handful of ruminations on the subject I came across this morning. Charlie Brooker is as enjoyable as ever, railing against the pointlessness of indulging in self-loathing, before moving on to some tried and tested everyone else-loathing. All very enjoyable, but mostly irrelevant to what I wish to discuss, aside from his first line, which I will get back to later. More pressing is the hypercritical take from ex-libertarian Will Wilkinson, who has two main points. Firstly, you can’t force yourself to want things:
Wanting to want or not want to do something is a pickle we can’t trick ourselves out of by harder meta-wanting. Either you somehow alter the first-order desire (all riches will flow to she who holds the secret) and, as Yoda says, do or do not, or you don’t, and you do or do not do what you wish you wouldn’t. Better to just note the conflict between what you want and what you want to want, and not make such a big deal about it. You can’t feel bad about breaking promises you never made.
I happen to disagree entirely on this point, due in part to reading about behavioural sciences, but primarily due to personal experience. If you’re willing to work at it, you have a lot more control over your brain than you may well realise. His other point I’m far more sympathetic to, that the whole ‘new year’ business is utterly arbitrary:
And why wait? What does the time it takes for Earth to make it ’round the sun have to do with your regimen of self-improvement? Nothing. You didn’t get fat last year. You’re getting fat right now, always, unless you know it and act like you care, or you’re a communist who lives on kale. Anyway, the Earth’s trip around the sun holds altogether too much sway in our lives. Why not count in full moons? Why not? Why the best books of 2011? A year is too short. You can’t read all those books.
I do wonder how much his politics inspires this position. If you’re far from fond of government then it stands to reason that while you’ll accept the seasons as immutable, the whole concept of a standardised year which ends in the middle of one of those seasons should make you uncomfortable. He has a point, we shouldn’t feel like those aspects of our lives that we can control need to match up to the calender year, but the year itself, well, it’s an ancient and entirely inoffensive construct. This is all a sideshow, as what really matters about a new year’s resolution, like any form of self-improvement, is whether it works. Conventional wisdom suggests that resolutions are doomed to fail, often within a few days. I presume there are studies out there on the topic, quite possibly proving said ‘wisdom’, but I’m far too lazy to look at those properly. I do, however, remember once seeing that someone did a study which suggested people stick to somewhere in the region of 20% of resolutions. So, instead of an in-depth literature review, we shall consider my own resolutions. Last year was irresolute, but 2009 and 2010 are easy to find, and conveniently there’s been at least two years since I made them:
31st December 2008
-Drink water more
-___ with ____
-learn to cook
Well, I’ve mostly failed these. I decided within about three hours of making this list to go back and do an MA, which I did, so there’s a success, and I did learn to cook, which I still do very regularly. Oh and the blanked out one I did manage, but it remains classified. The spaces are on the written page, but I always knew what that what meant. As for the failures…I wanted to ‘relearn’ maths because I looked at an old GCSE revision guide and was largely stumped, but I never made any serious effort on that account. I have some German, and I’m forever meaning to pull it up to a decent level, but, again, little effort to do so in 2009. Exercise…well, I did lose two stone that year, but I never really found a proper exercise regime, there was never the necessary consistency. And note that it’s not “drink more water”, I just aimed to have water take the place of other drinks more often, and it didn’t really work out either.
31st December 2009
Absolutely no success this time. ’14’ was an aim to get down to 14 stone, and I’m not there even now. I’m losing weight, sure, but more slowly than your average corpse. ‘Chew’ is an interesting one, suggesting I should chew my food for longer, and I’ve never been able to stick that. I think that should count more as a permanent suggestion. You can see that for some reason I swapped out German for French, a language I known even less of. The less said on that the better. ‘Fish’ implies I should make the jump from pescetarian to vegetarian, which is a daft idea which should have been and thankfully was quickly forgotten. ‘Make Imminence’…as I said, your guess is as good as mine. ‘Lift’ suggests I start doing weights, so I could handle physical tasks with greater ease, but I never really got around to that. And ‘Contacts’ means contact lenses, and I’ve still to look into that.
So, three out of fourteen, not far short of that 20%. That’s the first lesson then, make less of them. I’ve made just the six this year, so clearly I’m learning that lesson. Finally we come back to Mr Brooker, who opened his article with this line:
New Year’s resolutions work like this: you think of something you enjoy doing, and then resolve to stop doing it.
That’s certainly a popular perception, and I think it helps explain why people’s resolutions are usually so far from resolute. Trying to stop yourself from doing something, something you enjoy, is an incredible challenge. While I’d never say you shouldn’t make that effort, I do think a new year, a supposedly hopeful time, is the wrong moment for it. Even considering my ridiculously low success rate, the ones which have worked have involved actively doing something, and I think that would be the best bet for any of us.
In conclusion, new year’s resolutions are bunkum, but only in the same way that the vast majority of attempts to control the human condition are. The best bet is clearly to strive not to stop something, but to start something, to be positive, even if it’s unlikely to work. And if the alternative is to not even bother trying, well then, there’s no great harm in using the turn of the year as inspiration, it’s bound to work for some people, and perhaps it’ll work for me eventually. If nothing else, it makes for a nice window into where you were at a certain time in one’s life, and we all love a little nostalgia, no?