New Year's always brings a round of discussions about resolutions. People make resolutions or refuse to make resolutions. There are endless discussions of what resolutions will be made and why so many of them don't last beyond the first month.
I stopped making New Year's resolutions long ago, when I was in my teens. Perhaps I learned early that writing down those resolutions didn't result in change. Instead, it merely guaranteed that I would ultimately face the depressing realization that I seemed unable to embody the ideals I could so glibly commit myself to on January 1.
But here's what I started wondering today. Why January 1? Why do we make these resolutions on New Year's Day? What is it about changing the calendar that makes us want to change ourselves? There's something about a beginning that seems to open up the possibility for a fresh start, a rebirth into an improved self. After all, we so often start a new regimen -- a new diet, an exercise plan -- at the beginning of the week. Maybe there's just something about a new year, a new week, a new day that seems to allow for a change. The vista of a new year spreads before us, full of possibility, untouched by the failures and difficulties of the past. Perhaps we feel that we, too, are newly-born, able to do and be anything. Maybe we are willing to forgive ourselves for our imperfections -- rather than continuing to berate ourselves for our inability to succeed in the past, we can let that go and move forward on our path to self-actualization.
One of the reasons I enjoy being an academic is that there are so many beginnings. Every semester is a new beginning, ripe with potential. I get that heady sense of endless possibility not just in January, but also in August and June. I can tell myself that this semester will be better than the last -- I will be more diligent and disciplined. I'll de-clutter my office. I'll exercise regularly. I'll read more, write more, do more.
Of course, this new beginning is both true and illusory. It is true in that every moment represents a fresh start. We can change our habits anytime we wish, and every day, every hour, every minute, gives us the opportunity to do better. Even if we failed a moment ago, we have the opportunity to succeed in *this* moment. In that sense, why should we wait until January to make resolutions? Make your commitment to improvement every morning -- no need to wait for New Year's Day.
But it is illusory in that we drag our past with us, whether we wish to or not. Making a resolution to change does not, in itself, enact any change. I'm still the same person I was before I made the resolution, and I'm in the same place, with the same stresses and challenges. We seem to think that making the resolution will be enough. We merely need willpower and the commitment to change, and we will become that better person we can see so clearly. But this ignores the many forces, internal and external, that act upon us. One of the truisms in psychology is that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. We are more likely to keep doing we have always done, and willpower may not be sufficient to push us out of our groove.
We always have the opportunity for change and growth and improvement. But real and sustained change requires more than a resolution. It necessitates a plan of action that takes into account the factors that influence our behavior. We can look to the future and its wondrous possibility, but we need to learn from our past as well, or we will probably find ourselves doomed to repeat it.