We all know the dull thud of disappointment when we realise a resolution – let’s say, for argument’s sake, a New Year’s one – falls by the wayside. So often, resolutions seem to end in feelings of disappointment in ourselves, guilt, a tangy sense of failure and perhaps, finally, a vitriolic promise not to be taken in by pompous rituals of self-punishment in future. So we make a new resolution: if I really want to change, to make my life or my self better, I will do it in my own time, when I am ready and have the right reason other than the vagaries of calendrical time to compel me.
But, apart from the irresistible urge to spend the liminal period in late December and early January reflecting on past and future, like some common or garden angel of history, there are good reasons for making resolutions and New Year is as good a time as any, really. One of them is writing them down. In naming them like this, they acquire a certain form and force. For instance, giving up smoking might have been something I felt I should probably do at some point but when I state that I am going to do it, I am not only stating my intention, forming a sort of verbal contract with the world and myself, but acknowledging that giving up smoking is a good idea in the first place, which implies it was a problem and/or something that I did despite feeling that I also did not want to. Like effecting a Sharia divorce through the invocation of a triple talaq or summoning Bloody Mary, voicing something can put into action. Distinctions between the said and the done are, in the end, often pretty flimsy.
I have always been both too eager to accept – or, perhaps, to give in – to my own procrastinatory and self-indulgent proclivities, and to criticise the whole tawdry ritual of annual resolution-making, to make these formal resolutions myself. Yet, this year, I just couldn’t help it. Call it an early-adulthood crisis, being a casualty of wider politico-economic forces, being a navel-gazing bore, whatever, but there are some lessons and resolutions that I just can’t seem to stop whispering to myself (inside my head, that is, I haven’t completely lost it).
One of the resolutions I have made to myself in the last few months is to make resolutions and stick to them. Not stopping smoking (I don’t smoke), not losing weight (I already managed to institute a new self-discipline around regular exercise last year and am largely sticking to it – GO ME!), but things like: not giving into my Facebook addiction so easily, only reading online articles that I actually want to retain the content of or that I really need to know about, cutting down on the frittering and faffing. Despite occurring toward the end of the year, this wasn’t really strictly speaking a New Year’s resolution, since the seeds were planted, not consciously bidden, in October or November last year, rather than in a desperate attempt to answer a conversational standard of early January. My second, and main, resolution is to write. Or, to be more accurate: to write more and to write better.
The common thread of these two resolutions is to have a better grip on time, to strive towards having a life that appears as if it has already been edited and pruned into a ‘best bits’ review rather than a turgid sum of me and I and everything I ever did. Which is not to say that I intend to have no leisure time, no do nothing time, no downtime, but that I will use that time better. This does not mean that I think time spent watching You Tube videos, reading Heat magazine or playing online Scrabble is de facto time wasted. But, it is a matter of doing those things when I really want to do them, rather than because they seem easier or less demanding than working, writing or sending that important email that I have been putting off. It is a question of erasing those times when I don’t settle into or enjoy what I am doing because I am letting my mind wander across my To Do list, just as it is a resolution to stop letting an urge to check my Facebook news feed interrupt my working time. A sort of lifelong Pomodoro technique, if you will.
I’m surely not the first person to notice that so many of the resolutions we make are about encouraging ourselves to do things that we have good reasons to do, whether that’s improving our health or allowing ourselves to do more of the things we enjoy. Why this perverse broccoli effect? I love to write, I enjoy writing, I revel in the way the right word, phrase or sentence can roll through my brain like a marble in a game of Mousetrap, and yet I so often let myself deny myself this pleasure, even though it is something that brings enormous meaning to my life. Why is it that doing things that are good for us are so unappealing as to take such a strong will to effect? Why do I routinely deny myself the umami pleasure of writing in favour of anything from doing my laundry to finding new people to follow on Twitter? When will that right time to write be? The fact is, that there is never a perfect time for anything and especially for something that is easily dismissed as pointless self-indulgence (‘no one will ever read it’) or sidelined in favour of work that pays the bills. It is unfair that there are people out there who have inherited money or savings or wealthy spouses that allow them to spend as much of their time writing, composing songs, painting or just endlessly getting their nails done, but that is not the point and nor is it a valid excuse for my own weaknesses or self-denials.
I don’t think that berating myself, criticising other people, instilling a sense of personal failure or feeling guilty is a useful motivator for me, or probably anyone. That approach is, more likely than not, a shortcut to misery and compounded failure. Instead, what I am suggesting is reframing these things towards something more like positive reinforcement. We should only really resolve to do things that bring us (by which, I mean me or you, not one) a benefit, and which benefit us in ways that are welcome and meaningful. There is literally no point in giving up vices if doing so will not bring an improvement – of whatever kind – to your self, life or other people. This much is obvious, but my point is that working out what that improvement might – or might not – be takes honesty and self-knowledge. We all know that smoking will most likely cause ill health and premature death, but if someone reckons that giving it up will cause a significant enough amount of pain or distress to make that fate less relevant then it is worth her considering if she is really ready or willing to give up. That decision doesn’t have to be about giving up on a good idea or failing to commit to self-improvement. It may just be a recognition of the fact that the most successful way for her to feel better would be to resolve to wait another six or twelve months and then ask herself if she would like to stop smoking then – and to not make herself worry about it in the meantime. It is, after all, so much easier to do things we really want to do. I would favour desire over guilt as a motivator any day of the year.
The word resolution has its roots in the Latin for release. So, take a deep breath and visualise all those things, people and places that make you feel calm, content, at home, yourself. Embrace them, hold onto them, take risks for them. Now, doesn’t that feel better?