So here we are again at the start of another year and I, along with an estimated 40 percent of adult Americans, am making my New Year’s resolutions. I make them every year, only a few, and write them in my journal; then, at the end of the year, and just before finalizing my new list, I review the old one and see what I have accomplished. Interesting how some entries are repeated year after year; the resolve to develop more patience, for example, seems forever to elude me.
We think of the practice of forming New Year’s resolutions as a particularly Western, even a particularly American tradition perhaps inherited from Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack (published yearly from 1732 -1758) with its witty proverbs and wise counsel for personal improvement. But in fact, the practice can be traced all the way back to the ancient Babylonians who resolved each year to settle their debts and return borrowed objects.
It wasn’t until Julius Caesar organized the Roman calendar into ten months (with intervening “adjustment periods”) that January became the first month of the year. Thus began the Roman custom of making promises to the god Janus, who represented gateways and beginnings. The Julian calendar remained in place until 1582 when Pope Gregory XIII instituted the 12 month Gregorian calendar we still use today. January 1 became the official beginning date of the New Year and, from then on, Christians typically prayed for blessings and resolved to do good works in the months ahead. During Medieval times, the knights even renewed their vows of chivalry.
Resolutions these days are rarely so lofty; rather, they usually focus on more mundane aims regarding diet, exercise and personal habits: to quit smoking, drink less, lose weight, save money. Then there are the broader self-improvement quests such as reducing stress, getting organized, cultivating gratitude, and yes, developing patience. While no doubt formed in good faith, the problem with all of these is that they beg the question of “How?”
It has been my experience — and believe me, I have years of experience with resolutions — that the more specific an intention is, the more precisely it is stated, the more likely it is to be accomplished. Not “to lose weight” or “save money,” for example, but to lose a pound a month or save xx dollars per paycheck; not to “reduce stress” or “get organized,” but to take yoga classes or set up a filing system. In this way, resolutions become more like goals, with realistic steps toward achieving them, rather than simply pipe dreams that are soon forgotten or abandoned. (Notice, however, that I still have no successful steps to offer for becoming more patient.)
Sometimes, just writing a goal down is itself a significant step in moving toward it, in the same way that taking notes in class or writing a letter reinforces information and intentions. Words, especially written words, make an idea real. Once you’ve written it down, or even said it out loud, the thought has a physical presence. It now exists and demands to be dealt with; ignore it at your peril. If you’ve ever lived with the anger and anxiety due to “what has been left unsaid,” you know the truth of this. Sure you can always try to take the words back, or at least apologize for them, but once spoken or written, the reality of a situation is forever changed.
Not surprisingly, this is why writing resolutions is both so effective and so difficult. You force yourself to deal with the reality of your intentions, as well as to own their/your potential for failure. Best to make that list of resolutions as brief, as simple and as direct as possible. With that in mind, I have revisited my own resolutions over the last few years and have concluded there is, in fact, one simple common denominator running through not only the lists, but also the failures: it’s time.
My whole life has been a race against time — hence, my total lack of patience with people and situations that waste it. A good friend sent me a birthday card last year that showed the grim reaper with a scythe in the rearview mirror of a car. Inside it read, “Caution: objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.” Believe it or not, I laughed out loud; she knows me well.
“If you want something done, ask a busy person,” the old saying goes. And I have almost always said yes, which has left me over-extended, stressed out, and then blaming everyone but myself. That pattern stops this year. I will consider my yesses carefully, lest I spend so much time doing what I don’t want to do, don’t have to do, and don’t need to do to fulfill other’s expectations. If that is selfish of me, then so be it, but at this age and stage in life, I think it’s about time.
So, briefly and simply, my New Year’s Resolution this year is … No!