For many people, January is a time for reflection and resolution – reflection on achievements, and opportunities missed, in the previous year, and resolution to do better in the new year.
I have already given up drinking…slowly and quite unintentionally and, judging by the comments of others, my annual consumption is now roughly equivalent to the average weekend consumption of normal people.
To that end, giving-up drinking as a resolution for 2023 seemed somewhat unimaginative and so I resolved to get back into running (I used to run a lot).
By teatime on the second, I’d already run 500 metres and, to celebrate, I went on Amazon and bought myself some new running kit.
I am not saying my old running kit is getting on a bit, but my long, khaki shorts – PE, for the use of – woolly vest and plimsoles are no longer at the cutting-edge. The parcel has now arrived and is looking at me, unopened and judgmental.
24 hour broadcasting means the telly no longer fizzes, as it once did, as a kind of electronic, moral judgment on me having scratched and snored my way through Late Call and, as I was roused from slumber by Ziggy the Office Wonder Dog licking my feet to suggest that now would be a very good time to go for a walk, in the early hours (11.45 am) of the third, I pondered the sense and meaning of new year resolutions.
They strike me as a particularly counterintuitive enterprise, particularly among businesspeople whose judgements and decision-making are normally based on empirical evidence and lessons learned from past experience.
Imagining that years, or even decades, of patterned behaviour can – or should – be abruptly overturned on what is essentially a whim, is contrary to how we normally operate.
Would a chief executive, for example, call in their head of HR on December 31 and announce they have ‘resolved’ that, from the following day, no-one should ever again throw a sickie or fiddle their expenses?
While we like to think that we are unique, most cultures have their equivalent of new year resolutions – a reset date upon which to take control of our lax personal behaviour.
Many of us use introspection, self-examination and orientation to the future to make resolutions associated with abstinence from vices, such as quitting smoking, drinking or fatty food.
However, there is no evidence to suggest any other culture succeeds more than ours in keeping to their promises.
Few of us stick to new year resolutions, with studies showing that fewer than one in ten feel we have succeeded in achieving goals set at the start of the year. Around a third of resolutions having already failed by mid-January, or earlier (how’s Dry January going, lads?).
So, what makes sustaining a new year’s resolution so difficult? A good part of the problem is that we tend to ignore our current state when making projections about how we might feel in the future.
When we make new year’s resolutions, we are normally in a relaxed and louche mood, stuffed full of turkey and with our minds fuzzy with industrial levels of insulin, revelling in a holiday mood, often surrounded by family and friends.
The last thing on our minds are the stresses of work, the day-to-day pressures of paying the bills and family life that all hit us like a train when we return to our normal routine at the end of the first week in January.
Another difficulty is that temptation always stands in the way, added further complications because we are biologically set to live for the present.
We are also likely to seriously underestimate the strength of our future cravings and desires that are likely to derail our resolutions when they start to be tested.
Essentially the ‘empathy gap’ starts to work against us, meaning that how we feel in the present prevents us from empathising with our future selves.
The best thing we can do is not to abandon new year resolutions altogether, but to be mindful of how we will feel in the future, what is achievable and to avoid setting overambitious and ultimately unachievable goals.
In that spirit I have already decided that my new year resolution for 2024 will be to complete the entire kilometre.