January is the month of new starts. New year, new you, new beginning. Fresh leaves all over the place to turn over.
It’s all nonsense. Yet when the big number changes, it feels momentous. We particularly like multiples of 10 and 100. The 100th episode of TV shows, our 40th birthday, our 10th wedding anniversary; seemingly significant arbitrary numbers. “I will not celebrate meaningless milestones,” Bart writes on the chalkboard during the 100th episode of The Simpsons. Perhaps we are just looking for excuses to throw a good party. The more digits that change, the more momentous: 2019 to 2020 was a bigger change than 2020 to 2021. 2999 to 3000 will be an even greater change. We’ll need an especially big New Year’s resolution that year.
I went to a Roman Catholic Convent school. They were big into New Year’s resolutions. In fact, throughout the year, there was always something to beat yourself up about. Fasting, repenting, confessing, pilgrimaging. When it wasn’t taking up something good for New Year, it was giving up something bad for Lent. A new day a new penance. Catholics are very into self-flagellation.
I found this something of a drag. At 6, I hadn’t picked up enough vices to start giving them up each year. Even at that age, the whole thing felt forced. I remember nuns at school giving up chocolate and coffee, then thankfully returning to them with gusto once the allotted period was over. What was the point of making a change if you knew it wouldn’t be lasting? Weren’t you punishing yourself for no real benefit? At that age, I didn’t know how big a part of Catholicism that was.
I found this annual ritual surprisingly stressful. What makes a good resolution? It needs to be achievable, but not too ambitious. Specific, but not arbitrary. Significant, but not all-encompassing. Personal, but not shameful. ‘Go to the dentist’ is not ambitious enough. ‘Eat 10 portions of vegetables a day’ is too much. Years later, this feeling came back with a rush of familiarity when filling in my annual appraisal form. We call them SMART objectives now, but they’re essentially a work version of the same thing. Isn’t it enough to do the job well and deal with the unexpected challenges life throws up, without having a quasi-New Year’s resolution as well? Increase turnover by 10%. Reduce headcount churn by 5%. Go to the gym twice a week.
But I was a good child, so I dutifully set my New Year’s Resolution as we were told. And then, like everyone else, forgot it by January 17th.
It’s easy to mock minor self-improvements just because the year has changed. If you want to change something, why wait for the new year to start? Years are just human fiction, after all. Why set the start of your gym membership to January 1st, when, like me, you could just not bother joining a gym at all?
And yet we are motivated by symbolic numbers. When the year changed from 1999 to 2000 the UN announced the Millennium Development goals — a sort of worldwide New Year’s Resolution on steroids. The Jubilee 2000 Coalition (funnily enough, a largely Catholic group) petitioned governments to wipe out third world debt. This caught the attention of Tony Blair (another Catholic) and the UK chancellor Gordon Brown. Together they wrote off significant amounts of debt to the UK and even persuaded the United States to do the same. Kofi Annan referred to the Jubilee 2000 Coalition as the most impressive campaign he’d seen. I can’t help thinking it would never have happened without the year change. If they’d tried to cancel third-world debt on Thursday, July 18th it wouldn’t have got off the ground.
As much as we scoff at New Year’s resolutions, humans love numbers. We’re motivated by watching them go up. We strap things to our body that count how many steps we’ve done and walk backward and forward to maintain our streak. We love “getting our steps in”. Perhaps we are cynical about New Year’s resolutions because we know they work. Our mockery is a defense mechanism to avoid the disappointment we’d feel if we failed.
I fell out of love with New Year’s resolutions after primary school. Not that I’d ever been in love with them to start with. In January, without a teacher telling me to write down my New Year’s resolution, I didn’t come up with one. Certainly, they had no place in my cynical teenage years. They were self-helpy and new-agey, at once pathetic and pompous. A marketing gimmick. An attempt to sell gym memberships and Bran Flakes. A product of a culture obsessed with self-improvement. They were a parody of other resolutions. The UN has the Security Council Resolution on the situation in the Middle East. I have the resolution to eat more leafy greens. They were so unabashedly wholesome and self-improving. Like doing yoga and handing in your homework before the day it’s due. You know what my New Year’s Resolution is this year? I’d say. Full HD 1080p.
Hidden within resolutions is “resolute”. Someone who sets and keeps resolutions is resolute. The word conjures something big and sturdy. The US president’s timber oak desk is the resolute desk. There have been six USS Resolutes. Operation Resolute was the NATO-led peacekeeping force in Bosnia. Three Royal Navy ships have been HMS Resolute. I’m not sure I’d want to describe myself with the same word as an old boat or desk. Resolute people are dry and stuffy. They get up early and go for a jog. Can you imagine someone resolute bumming around on Twitter in the evening? They’d probably be tweeting at their MP.
Years later, as an adult, a partner of mine asked what my New Year’s resolutions were. Resolutions, plural, as if one weren’t enough. I explained I didn’t really do that. She shrugged and showed me what she’d written in a notebook.
There were half a dozen and they were all so… achievable. Some were to continue things she had already started. Some, incredibly, were nice: go on holiday this year, pick up a hobby she’d not had time for. Where was the self-flagellation and piety?
So I started making New Year’s Resolutions. Having more than one meant I came up with achievable things to do over the year. The pressure was off one, year-long undertaking. I didn’t have to put all my new year eggs into one resolution basket. By changing from a binary succeed or fail (well, let’s be honest, on most occasions, a singular fail) into a set, I could give up some, but succeed at others and not feel as if I’d failed. Coming up with a singular, annual objective is terrifying. It feels as if it needs to consume a year’s worth of effort to justify itself. But coming up with half a dozen smaller ones is much easier. Break things down into smaller parts. Divide and conquer.
It’s also changed the sort of things I became resolute about. No more sweeping, nebulous statements: get healthy, spend less money, two resolutions I can berate myself over in one go when I look at my Five Guys receipts. Now I use them as an opportunity to carry out a little personal appraisal and decide how to spend the year doing more of what I want, and less of what I don’t like: make time once a month to have friends over for dinner, have a day without using the internet each week, open an ISA, when the weather is good, walk home rather than taking the train. That sort of thing.
Perhaps everyone knows this already, and I am late to the New Year’s party. I am not much of one for writing self-help lists— four top tips to make New Year’s resolution a success, six reasons to start New Year’s resolutions is not my style. But here they are: ways of making your resolutions a success, reasons to start them. I started keeping New Year’s resolutions and it changed my life.
Big changes, I’ve found, are so big they get abandoned. Little changes, strangely, aren’t just easier, they’re more fun. Not that I’m saying opening an ISA is fun, but it’s certainly further away from the “root canal without anesthetic” end of the spectrum than “spend less money” is. I have a list of this year’s resolutions written down in a little notebook. I’m feeling good about them.