I am a sucker for New Year’s resolutions. The anticipation and pre-planning process starts about halfway through December when my intentions about intentions begin to form and lurk in my psychological ’ to do’ list (loosely translated that means I haven’t committed anything to paper or thought through my resolutions but there is an overwhelming sense that now is the time to start).
I saw a funny post on social media which said the earth makes one full rotation around the sun and then carries on doing exactly the same and everyone reacts with celebration and renditions of Auld Lang Syne – referring of course to the fact that the morphing from the end of December into the beginning of January is simply another day, all the more so because the Gregorian calendar is an artificial construct anyway. Looked at logically, the obvious time to mark a new rotational cycle would be the first day of spring, not 10 days after the official start of winter in Europe or summer in the southern hemisphere. January 1st makes absolutely no sense whatsoever, yet just like most, I too view the start of a new year as a defining moment - a new chapter, a fresh start or an opportunity to begin afresh. ‘Happy New Year, Compliments of the Season and let’s hope it’s a good one!'
A quick Wikipedia search reveals that at the end of the Great Depression, about a quarter of American adults formed New Year's resolutions. At the start of the 21st century, about 40% did and about 40% to 50% of Americans participated in the New Year's resolution tradition, according to the 1995 Epcot and 1985 Gallop Polls. A study found 46% of participants who made common New Year's resolutions (e.g. weight loss, exercise programmes, quitting smoking) were over 10 times likely to succeed than those deciding to make life changes at other times of the year.
So even if you think it is corny or you don’t accept there’s anything much to it, a resolution if nothing else, is a self-improvement, to-do list and there has been countless research to support that simply writing down your intention increases your chances of turning that into a reality. The real beauty is in its simplicity - work out what needs to be done and in what order, write down the tasks, carry them out and then, one-by-one, cross them off.
There has been other research that has focussed on the brain’s obsession with pressing tasks which has been called the “Zeigarnik effect” – that we remember things we need to do better than things we’ve done. For example, it was observed that waiters could only recall diners’ orders before they had been served. After the dishes had been delivered, their memories simply erased who’d had the steak and who’d had the soup. The deed was done, and the brain was ready to let go and turn to the next table.
Unfinished events – like the fact that last year we had promised ourselves to start writing that book or get the family’s finances in order including filing and planning, clean out our closet, go swimming 3 days a week and do charity work at least once a month...– tend to prey on our ever-more-cluttered mind. So, when the new year comes, we see the opportunity to start over, to try again and do better this time.
American psychologist Will Joel Friedman says that the dissonance caused by unfinished business prevents us from living fully in the present moment. What we've accomplished takes second place in our minds, and what we haven't done moves front and centre. While this may serve as a useful to-do list, it also increases stress and chips away at our self-esteem.
New Year's resolutions are an exercise in positivity. Even if we made the same ones last year and failed to keep them, we feel optimistic about success this year. And it is not only the territory of individuals. Organisations make New Year’s resolutions all the time. They show up in budgets, goals, and strategic plans. They are often launched in a flourish of sparkly communications via Whatsapp, Facebook or Twitter, purportedly from the Chairman of the Board or the CEO, jollying and chivvying everyone in the organisation to pull together and come back to work with a renewed optimism. “Let’s make it the best year ever!” And just like our individual lists, corporate resolutions are also statements of hope and promise, the opposite of which would be despair and disappointment. Looked at in that light, they’re pretty well obligatory!
And for those of you who are either unconvinced about the purpose and efficacy or those who want to buy into it but are still undecided on exactly what to commit to, let me make it very simple. No matter how you phrase it, nor how you intend to achieve it, all New Year resolutions, be they private or corporate, boil down to three things – health, wealth and happiness - To quote Keats. “That is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know’”
And on that note, ‘Lang may your lums reek!’