Usually we wait until the end of the year to take stock; to look back at the past twelve months and review where we went wrong and where we went right. More often than not we end up dwelling on the bad stuff and the whole year begins to feel like one giant anti-climax. We started off with good intentions; maybe we even achieved some mini victories and minor successes along the way; but when we look back at the whole year instead of its parts, more often than not, we feel let down – as though we let ourselves down.
A study by the University of Scranton compiled a list of the most common New Year’s Resolutions for 2014, which included: lose weight, become more organised, spend less and save more, “enjoy life to the fullest”, stay fit and healthy, learn something exciting, quit smoking, help others in achieving their dreams, fall in love and spend more time with family. Do any of these look familiar? The study estimates that 45% of people make resolutions but only 8% will manage to keep them for an entire year. Are you part of the 45%? Lucky enough (or strong enough) to be part of the 8%?
When we look at the idea of New Year’s resolutions it’s easy to see why our December reflections leave us feeling like failures. We set grand goals for ourselves, but they are usually quite vague, making success difficult to measure. What does being more organised or living life to the fullest actually entail? How much do you want to save and how much time do you want to spend with family? And even more importantly, how are you going to achieve these things? Journalist and author Oliver Burkeman argues that New Year’s resolutions “exude perfectionism” – that is to say, we have an expectation of total transformation instead of just getting a little bit better. When it comes time to review our year, we look for the massive leaps, instead of the baby steps; ignoring the mini victories and minor successes; deeming the year a botched job.
The other danger of New Year’s resolutions that Burkeman warns against is the assumption that accompanies them that by sheer force of will, we can “cut ourselves free from unwanted personality traits once and for all”. We seem to forget that the characteristic we are trying to change is one of the many characteristics that make us who we are. Thus, the self is attempting to change its very definition and this seems like a big ask. Furthermore, if you single out one area for total change, you are likely to neglect contributory factors that could also use some work. And even worse, points out Stephen Shapiro, “While blindly pursuing our goals, we often miss unexpected and wonderful opportunities”.
Another inevitable let down of New Year’s resolutions is that we tend to overestimate the effect that one life change will have on overall happiness. How many times have you heard yourself or someone you know say, “If only I had his / her body / job / money / house / family / “insert any number of things”, thenI would be happy. But this is very rarely, if ever, true. Often it is a case of having to change one’s entire mind set and not just one simple fact or pattern of behaviour that is necessary for a shift in your state of happiness. If we place too much emphasis on one life change, then even a massive success can feel like a failure.
But more than anything, I think that the danger with New Year’s resolutions is our obsession with “fresh starts” – or pseudocide as Doug Richmond, author of “How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found” calls it – the idea that we can fake our own death (figuratively of course) and start again, unrestricted by the disappointments of the past. It is the source of why we will only ever start a new diet on a Monday, or on the first day of a new month. This extends to delaying important decisions or actions – waiting until we feel a particular way (motivated, inspired, unafraid) before we do something. The trap is, as Lemony Snicket puts it, “If we wait until we’re ready, we’ll be waiting for the rest of our lives”.
“Give up on yourself,” wrote Shoma Morita, the late Japanese psychologist. “Begin taking action now, while being neurotic or imperfect or a procrastinator or unhealthy or lazy or any other label by which you inaccurately describe yourself. Go ahead and be the best imperfect person you can be, and get started on those things you want to accomplish before you die”.
So, as we approach the 16th week of 2014 I’m asking you not to wait until December to take stock of your life. If you’re part of the 45% who made resolutions, why not pause to reflect on them now? Are you making progress? What is progress? Are your expectations realistic? If you’re not part of the 45%, how do you plan to review your year in December? What will you take as successes and what will weigh heavy on you as failures? Everyone has the desire for self-improvement or things we think we owe it to ourselves to do. Don’t wait for the illusion of a “fresh start” or for a certain emotion to wash over you before you reach for it. Just do it! And do it now!
What are your thoughts on New Year’s resolutions and the idea of pseudocide? Let us know with a comment below…