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We may need some resolutions, but they are difficult to keep

I’m not one for resolutions per se, though this time of year brings to mind changes. When it comes to diet – eating less, eating better – there’s nothing like the holiday indulgences to make us aware that at least a little detoxing would be a good idea. Eating better is, after all, a prime resolution at this time of year.

That’s probably more common at this point, studies having shown that the pandemic has caused many of us to eat more, drink more and become more sedentary: we’ve got more than a little ground to make up.

So, here we are a week into the new year. Have you broken any resolutions yet? Chances are if you made a resolution, you’ll break it.

Studies show fewer than half of us still make resolutions, with only about eight per cent sticking with them through the year.

As Mark Twain put it more colourfully, “Yesterday, everybody smoked his last cigar, took his last drink and swore his last oath. Today, we are a pious and exemplary community. Thirty days from now, we shall have cast our reformation to the winds and gone to cutting our ancient shortcomings considerably shorter than ever.”

Of New Year’s intentions, he added, “Now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual.”

What is it about a new calendar year that makes us eager to reinvent ourselves, if only a little bit? The coming of a new year is seen as a fresh start and a time for deciding what needs to be changed and where to go next. It’s for these reasons that so many people make new year’s resolutions to accomplish things such as to exercise more, quit smoking, pay off debt, save more money, complete projects, get organized, further education, lose weight, and the like.

Perhaps there’s an endless optimism that we can change, that we can be better – which, of course, recognizes that we all have something in our lives that we wish to alter. Psychologists tells us this is normal human behaviour, adding that the tough part is actually following through on the impulse for self improvement. In other words, fantasizing about a better you, about an idealized version of you – most of us can actually picture ourselves that way – will remain just that: a fantasy. Unless, that is, we are willing to work hard to make the dream a reality.

Each December people around the world are filled with motivation and enthusiasm. They promise themselves that in the New Year they’ll start going to the gym, give up smoking, start saving money, and begin a new career… But year after year people continue to fail to achieve their New Year’s resolutions, often by the time they reach February or March.

Countless studies indicate that anywhere between 75 to 95 per cent of people fail to achieve their resolutions. Maybe that’s why fewer of us are even bothering to do so. A recent survey shows almost 70 per cent of Americans said they don’t make New Year’s resolutions, up 10 percentage points from just a few years ago.

Even without a formal resolution, there is something about rolling into a new year that gives us hope for a new start.

As Timothy A. Pychyl, an associate professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, notes in his research, personal goals that have been neglected or forgotten resurface with the beginning of a new year – hope springs eternal.

Having made a long study of procrastination, he knows very well what happens to our good intentions most of the time.

“One of the strangest things about intentions for the new year is that they are often made during the holidays; a time when our schedules change, and we may even feel a little less rushed with the day-to-day tasks that typically occupy us,” he writes in Psychology Today. “So, when we think ahead to adding a new project to our commitments or, more likely, bringing renewed attention to a neglected project, we optimistically believe that there will actually be more time in the new year as well. Why?

“Research shows that we are biased in our predictions of the future by our present circumstances. This ‘presentism’ leads us to believe we’ll feel less stressed in January just as we do now during the holidays.”

Basking in the holiday glow, we feel that we can make the changes we’re resolving to make – no problem. In the future. Later. After we keep doing what we’re doing for the time being.

“There’s nothing like a good intention for later to make us feel good now. We have made an important, perhaps even noble, intention for change, but we don’t have to do anything until later. We feel great, and with the presentism bias, we also predict that we’ll feel like engaging in that task in the future too,” notes Pychyl.

Of course, that’s not the case.

Getting up early and going for a walk seems like a fine idea as you enjoy another helping of enhanced eggnog sitting in your easy chair. Later, the alarm clock, darkness and sound of the wind howling quickly disabuse you of that warm glow.

Luckily, the good professor even has contingencies for that.

“Expect to “fall off the wagon” for whatever intention you have. Expecting that you will fail at times, you can now make one more important pre-decision. This time, the pre-decision is to be ready to forgive yourself when you falter and to try again.  Just make sure that trying again is not something you put off until your next year’s resolution. Procrastination on these goals is one of the main reasons that we ring in the new year with our old projects.”

Many of us make resolutions casually only to just as easily break them. We then rationalize our actions. In our jaded age, we’re equally blasé about the same lack of follow-through from our elected officials – in fact, we’ve come to expect them to lie, cheat, break their promises and to otherwise act in a self-serving manner. That doesn’t mean, however, that we just accept the status quo.

Right now, the most pressing issue is the pandemic, after which officials will have to focus on economic recovery, including eliminating the massive deficits accumulated at the federal and provincial levels. The public having borne the brunt of the crises, bureaucratic belts must be tightened. At budget time, maybe our political leaders should resolve to do what’s right, to make us all better, if only once.

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