Three Stories: #2 Why I Don’t Make New Year’s Resolutions

This is a story I’ve never told anyone before, but I hope that it will help to explain why I think many students struggle with making solid change in their academic and life practices. They focus on endpoints and set deadlines reactively, rather than focusing on process and finding a good time to change. Let me explain this in the narrative.

When I was younger, I was quite a bit heavier than I am now – by about 30% of my body mass. As I got older, this became more of a problem and my weight went up and down quite a lot as I tried to get a regular regime of exercise into my life and cut back on my eating. Unfortunately, when I get stressed, I tend to eat, and one of the things I used to get stressed about was … losing weight. It’s a common, vicious, circle. Anyway, one year, after a Christmas where I had found it difficult to fit into my ‘good’ clothes and just felt overstuffed and too hot most of the time, I decided that enough was enough. I would make a New Year’s Resolution to lose weight. Seriously. (As background, Christmas in Australia is in Summer, so we sing snows about snow and eat roast turkey while sitting around in 90-100F/32-38C heat – so if your clothes are squeezy, boy, are you going to feel it.)

I can’t remember the details of the New Year’s Eve party but I do remember waking up the next day and thinking “Ok, so now I lose weight”. But there were some problems.

  1. It was still very hot.
  2. Everything was closed because it was a public holiday.
  3. I was still stuffed from Christmas/NY indulgence.
  4. I was hungover.
  5. I had no actual plan.
  6. I hadn’t actually taken any steps towards either dietary change or exercise that I could implement.

So, instead of getting out of bed and doing anything healthy, I thought “Oh, ok, I’ll start tomorrow.” because it was just about impossible, to my mind, to get things started on that day. I made some plans as to what I’d do the next day and thought “Ok, that’s what I’ll do tomorrow.”

But then a friend called on the 2nd and they were in town so we caught up. Then I was back at work and it was really busy.

And… and… and…

When I finally did lose the weight, many years later, and get to a more stable point, it wasn’t through making a resolution – it was through developing a clear plan to achieve a goal. I set out to work up to walking 10 miles as loops around my block. Then, when I achieved that, I assessed myself and realised that I could replace that with running. So then, ever time I went out, I ran a little at the start and walked the rest. Finally I was (slowly) running the whole distance. Years later, a couple of bad falls have stopped me from long-distance running, but I have three marathons and numerous halves under my belt.

Why didn’t it work before? Well, lack of preparation is always bad, but also because New Year’s is one of the worst possible times to try and make a massive change unless you’ve actually prepared for it and the timing works for you. Think about it:

  1. New Year’s Eve is a highly social activity for many people as are the days after- any resolutions involving food, alcohol, sex or tobacco are going to much harder to keep.
  2. It’s high stakes, especially if you make your resolution public. Suddenly, failure is looming over you and other people may be either trying to force you into keeping your resolution – and some people will actively be trying to tempt you out of it.
  3. There’s just a lot going on around this time for most people and it’s not a time when you have lots of extra headspace. If your brain is already buzzing, making big change will make it harder.
  4. Setting your resolution as a goal is not the same as setting a strategy. This is really important if you fall off the wagon, so to speak. If you are trying to give up smoking but grab a quick cigarette on the 3rd, then your resolution is shot. If you have a plan to cut down, allowing for the occasional divergence, then you can be human without thinking “Oh, now I have to abandon the whole project.”
  5. New Year’s Resolutions tend to be tip of the mind things – if something had been really bothering you for months, why wait until NYE to do it? This means that you’re far less likely to think everything out.

After thinking over this for quite a long time, I’ve learned a great deal about setting goals for important changes and you have to try to make these changes:

  1. When you have a good plan as to what you’re trying to achieve or what you’re just trying to do as a regular practice.
  2. When you have everything you need to make it work.
  3. When you have enough headspace to think it through.
  4. When you won’t beat yourself up too badly if it goes wrong.

So have a Happy New Year and be gentle on yourself for a few days. If you really want to change something in your life, plan for it properly and you stand a much better chance of success. Don’t wait until a high stakes deadline to try and force change on yourself – it probably won’t work.


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