Resolving

Every year in late December a little flurry of blog posts and articles come out on the general theme of “New Year’s Resolutions: Don’t Bother”. Some take a scientific tack, outlining the psychological and neuroscientific research as to why around 88% of resolutions fail, like this post. Others take a more life-coaching approach, giving tips on how to beat the game and make a resolution that you can keep.

All good advice, no doubt – either don’t bother setting resolutions or keep them reasonable, attainable, and more in the vein of a lifestyle change. I myself, being an insufferable hipster, tend to go for alternatives to resolutions, like “Ten things I’m giving up in this year”, though I am no more likely to keep those non-resolutions than anyone else. I think the year I did the “Ten things I’m giving up” list one of them was “envy”, and we all know how well that one worked out.

Last year I actually did make New Year’s resolutions like a normal person: a) get a part-time non-music job and b) learn to be more productive with my time. Because I succeeded at a) I had to succeed at b) out of necessity, so yay me, I guess.

The date at which we mark the end of one year and the start of another is entirely arbitrary and varies across cultures. The lunar New Year, observed in China, Korea, and other Asian countries, falls anywhere between mid-January and mid-February depending on the year; the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hoshanah, takes place in on various dates in the fall; the Gregorian calendar wound up sticking the New Year in the dead of winter for some reason or other having to do with 18th-century geopolitics. Floating dates means the New Year can be tied to an astronomical or ritual occason; a fixed date like Jan 1 means an arbitrary date for a new beginning. But all New Year’s traditions (that I’m aware of) have elements of both forward thinking and reflection on the year past – the tradition of monetary gifts to bring prosperity and good luck in the Lunar New Year, Rosh Hoshanah’s focus on atonement and sacrifice; and the secular western tradition of beginning the year with a promise to improve yourself and your life.

The need to make a fresh start when there’s, well, a fresh start, seems to be a deep one, as does the incapacity to actually make this happen. This split between the ideal self – the one who is going to lose that weight or get out of debt or spend more time with its family – and the one who isn’t going to do any of those things brings up the fascinating phenomenon of auto-insubordination, a word I can’t find a definition for online but is used in this article and which I swear I came across somewhere in academic literature, maybe in the writings of Peggy MacDonald. The idea that you can rebel against yourself is one that resonates with me, maybe because as a musician I have about 28 years of experience struggling between my need/desire to practice and my natural tendency to sloth. My personal unscientific opinion is that this minor form of self-destructive behaviour is what leads to all those broken resolutions (along with generally unrealistic and difficult-to-achieve nature of the goals). For a little while we feel virtuous as we, I don’t know, go to the gym three times a week or curtail our Twitter use, but eventually we get tired of being good and the part of ourselves that says “Don’t you have better things to do?” or “Have you exercised yet today?” starts to sound like your mom telling you to do your homework and clean your room and the part that just wants to stay on the couch, smartphone in hand, starts saying “I AM A GROWN-UP I CAN DO WHAT I WANT” and all of a sudden you’re on Twitter for 6 hours in a row and haven’t been to the gym all week.

There’s a lot of really interesting research on motivation – Psychology Today has a good primer here – and it’s pretty clear that negative emotions do not help anyone achieve goals. So maybe New Year’s resolutions, with their high failure rate and attendant guilt and shame, are the wrong way to go, and if you want to change yourself you should either go pursue a realistic goal in an enjoyable way, or pick a goal you have no choice but to meet. Or for those goals which are about how we relate to others – connecting more with our kids, spending more time with our partners, getting a promotion or taking on more responsibility at work – we could apply some of the insights of group relations. I don’t exactly know how that would work, but as I learn more I might update this post.

Personally my goal for 2014 is to do more YouTube exercise videos, preferably short ones with goofy names like “10-min Booty Shaking Waist Workout”. (The linked video is absolutely a legitimate workout video but it definitely lives up to its name – there’s lots and lots of booty-shaking – so maybe don’t watch it at work.) Heck, I’m going to be going to a group relations conference this March (FINALLY), so maybe I’ll get my small study group to do one with me. This probably won’t make me lose any weight, but these videos are a lot of fun and my toddler likes doing them with me. How about you? Any small, realistic resolutions?

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