It’s the beginning of another year and I’ve been wondering what to choose for my New Year resolution. People have been doing this for hundreds of years; the Romans saw it as an opportunity to improve their lives and there was a time when I used to sit down on New Year’s Eve and make eighteen resolutions. Yes—EIGHTEEN—three in each of six categories. Relationships, work, home and health were covered and it’s now so long ago that I can’t remember what the other two were. But I do know that the mere act of creating a list was satisfying; a list brimming with the comforting belief that each item would be addressed comprehensively and effectively. This enthusiasm continues today in the form of my treats list, but looking back now, my resolutions list seems ridiculously earnest and I feel guilty about it.
It was naive, too. A study by psychologist Richard Wiseman looked at the New Year resolutions of 3,000 people and found that 88% didn’t manage to achieve them. These findings echo my own experience as year after year the same general themes would crop up; be a nicer person, be better organised, be more successful, and be thinner and greener. And each year I would review the previous year’s goals and pretty much nothing would have changed.
One of the reasons why willpower is so difficult to muster is that we have too many other things to think about. The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that deals with purposeful behaviour and an experiment by Stanford University’s Professor Baba Shiv demonstrated how it responds to pressure. He divided 165 undergraduates into two groups and gave them things to remember. One group got two digits while the other group got a sequence of seven digits. They were told to walk down a corridor and go into a room where they were to say these digits out loud. But just before the entrance to the room they were offered a ‘reward’ for their efforts: either a piece of chocolate cake or a bowl of fruit salad. The students who had the longer sequence to remember were more than twice as likely to choose chocolate cake than those who had the simpler task. The fact that this group tended to choose the less healthy food suggests that willpower is significantly compromised by having other things to think about. And with most of us juggling busy lives this has implications for whether we manage to keep to our resolutions.
Perhaps in the past I simply had too many resolutions to work on at once. But I do like the sense of purpose they give and I’m not ready to give up on them yet. This year I’ve resolved to choose just one, so it had better be good and I’ve been racking my brain to think what it could be.
Something health-related is an obvious candidate; I could definitely benefit from a regular exercise programme. This will have to be swimming since I detest getting hot and sweaty and a good resolution would be ‘to swim three times a week’. But on second thoughts I know what will happen. Anyone sensible would make the days go along the lines of ‘swim, no swim, no swim, swim, no swim, swim, no swim’. In my case what will happen is ‘no swim, no swim, no swim, no swim’ and then ‘swim, swim, swim’ all packed into the end of the week. That sounds like a recipe for stress.
Or rather than immersing myself in water, I could decide to drink it instead. We’re constantly being told to stay hydrated but like many things that should be beneficial, I find this difficult. A while ago, I decided to drink two litres of water a day. I kept it up for a couple of weeks and there was no doubt that my skin had more of a glow to it. However, I failed to acquire the promised extra energy as I was exhausted from getting up four times a night to pee.
Another resolution could be ‘to have a cleaner, tidier house’. It would be fairly easy to introduce regular dusting into my life. Though, as Molly’s boyfriend pointed out in a recent fit of logic, it should really be called ‘dedusting’. But actually when I think about it, I’m not bothered about a bit of dust and no-one ever said on their deathbed that they wish they’d done more dedusting.
However, there is one thing that I’d like to work on this year. It was prompted by hearing Nigella Lawson on Woman’s Hour, some time ago. She said, ‘Guilt is about me, me, me,’ and I’ve wondered about it ever since. It made me realise that I say, ‘I feel guilty’ about all manner of things like not contacting friends, breaking promises, and being thoughtless. But it’s all too easy to say the words and it doesn’t help anyone, neither the person I say I feel guilty about, nor me. So from now on I’m aiming to avoid this particular sentiment. I’ll try to act on the negative feeling and to be more thoughtful but if I don’t manage it, then that’s just the way it is.
And I take back what I said in that first paragraph above—I no longer feel guilty that I used to make eighteen resolutions. I’ve just done something about it.