I make a lot of lists. Of groceries I need to buy, books I want to read, tasks I have to complete. While I don’t always enjoy completing the tasks on these lists - there’s no joy in buying poo bags or paying your tax bill - I experience satisfaction when ticking them off. And I enjoy the activity of listmaking too: it imposes a structure, and makes me less likely to forget things. This makes me feel calmer, and I like things which make me feel calmer.
Last night, I made my favourite list of the year: my new year’s resolutions. In doing so, I’m likely to be in the minority. According to this study of 2,000 Brits, only 30% of us plan on making new year's resolutions in 2024 (which is a step up from 2023, when only 19% did). I’ve read plenty of opinion pieces about why making resolutions is a bad idea, and a lot of them make some pretty good points: that we set unrealistic goals, try to change too much too quickly; that we’re only making resolutions because of the social pressure surrounding New Year’s, and our hearts aren’t really in it.
I’ve kicked things off by booking a kayaking and hiking trip in Thailand, but I also plan on doing things closer to home - I want to finish hiking the Norfolk Coast Path, and seek out some new outdoor swim spots.
“Here you are, your familiar old self, with all your flaws and hang-ups, and you’ve concluded that it’s time for a New You,” writes Oliver Burkeman for The Guardian. “And yet the person overseeing this transformation – the person nominating the new habits, buying the self-help books, creating the daily progress charts to stick on the fridge – is, of course, the Old You. Which means that the specific changes you select, and the manner in which you pursue them, will invariably bear the hallmarks of their creator.”
Because of this, Burkeman believes, most resolutions you set simply reinforce your existing personality traits. Examples he gives are people-pleasers vowing to stay in better touch with friends, and those with a “self-punishing approach to eating, or to physical exercise” embarking on a more intense regime.
Statistically speaking, we’re unlikely to stick to our new year’s resolutions. An often-quoted study by Norcross and Vangerelli studying 200 “new year’s’ resolvers” over a two year period discovered that after two weeks, 71% of people were successful in sticking to their goals. This percentage dropped to 46% after six months, and 19% after two years. The initial experiment was repeated several times throughout the decades, and offered up similar results.
So, why bother? I personally think that the odds are pretty good. They’re far better than the odds I had of getting my novel published (1-2%), or even of being born (at least 1 in 400 quadrillion). Besides, according to Norcross’ research, only 8% of people with no set resolutions - but similar goals - are still successful in six months. But as the saying goes, "there are lies, damned lies, and statistics".
If something appeals to you, ignore the numerical likelihood of failing and carry on.
Here’s why I bother setting new year's resolutions: because I enjoy it. The first of January, to me, is as exciting as a blank page. It represents an infinite number of possibilities, of stories waiting to be written, and I’m the one holding the pen.
The first of January, to me, is as exciting as a blank page. It represents an infinite number of possibilities, of stories waiting to be written...
For most of my twenties and into my early thirties, I felt as if I were waiting for my life to begin - that opportunity and adventure were just around the corner. When I was a child, I dreamed big. I had lofty goals that I’ve yet to achieve - I’m not a National Geographic Explorer, I haven’t won the Booker prize and probably never will. The life already happening around me is the one I’ve got.
But coming to terms with this hasn’t been a process of disillusionment. The opposite, in fact. I’ve learned that the things which make me happy - like being outside - are far closer to home, and all within my control. Every year, when I sit down to write my new year's resolutions, this is what I remind myself of.
You’ll find all sorts of advice on setting goals online. Here’s mine: new year’s resolutions should be geared towards making you a happier person, not a more productive one. I don’t want to wake up any earlier and I don’t want to deprive myself of anything. In fact, one of my New Year’s Resolutions is to find more time to relax.
According to the survey of 2,000 Brits, the most popular new year’s resolutions are to exercise more (40%) and lose weight (33%). I’ll admit to being tempted by the second one. But I know myself and nothing is more likely to make me reach for a packet of crisps than telling myself I can’t have them. I do, however, love to cook. So one of my New Year’s resolutions is to learn about diets from the Blue Zones, and add some healthy but tasty snack recipes to my repertoire.
New year’s resolutions should be geared towards making you a happier person, not a more productive one.
But most of my new year’s resolutions are about adventure. For a start, I want to do more of it. I’ve kicked things off by booking a kayaking and hiking trip in Thailand, but I also plan on doing things closer to home - I want to finish hiking the Norfolk Coast Path, and seek out some new outdoor swim spots. Each year I have a goal to complete a solo multi-day hike, and this year I’m thinking about Scotland’s Cape Wrath Trail, which will really push me out of my comfort zone. I’ve also got a couple of skills I’d like to develop this year - navigation and scrambling.
Why do you need to make resolutions to do things that are clearly fun, I hear you ask? Because the older you get, the more responsibilities you have and the busier you become. It becomes harder and harder to carve out time for yourself. So when I make my new year’s resolutions, that’s what I’m trying to do. I’m making a commitment not to get so caught up in my job and life admin that it becomes the sum total of everything I do. I’m reminding myself that life is more than that - it’s about going on adventures, immersing yourself in nature, and enjoying the present moment rather than the ones yet to come.