New Year’s Resolutions? They’re Not Compulsory, BTW

Each year, as we drift through that strange week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, the innocuous conversations we have with anyone — shop assistant; hairdresser; fellow dog walker in the park — will inevitably include at some point the polite question: “So. Any New Year’s Resolutions?”

In days of yore, I’d be full of them. I excitedly planned a perfectly shiny new self every January. I saw myself emerging in around April or May as a fully-formed better person, reaping the rewards of all the new habits I’d be forcing myself to develop in January and reinforcing as the year went on.

I’d be reading scholarly tomes to enrich my mind. I’d be doing whatever exercise was fashionable that year (HIIT, perhaps, or Tabata), at least once a day but preferably twice. I’d be ditching bread, or maybe screens at bedtime. I’d definitely be teetotal. I’d drink herbal teas by the gallon.

I began to truly dread every January. New Year’s Day became the worst day of the year. As the Big Ben chimes faded, I’d sink into the dull oblivion of the routine I now had to force myself into. The weather would be cold, I’d have a backlog of work when I got to the office, and then to add insult to injury, I’d remember I couldn’t even have a cup of coffee to help the morning go by because I had ditched caffeine. Of course, I had.

About five years ago, I had an epiphany. And I’ll share it with you now, for I think you’ll agree that it is fairly revolutionary: New Year’s Resolutions are not a legal requirement. There’s no end prize for either making good ones or for sticking to them. Basically, and here’s the key fact it all comes down to: January is an entirely rubbish month, and there is no reason at all to make it worse for ourselves.

January is when the days are shortest, the weather (at least here in the UK) is its coldest and bleakest, and we are furthest away from any kind of state-mandated time off work because the next bank holiday isn’t until Easter. January is a head-down slog. January is when procrastination comes home to roost and all the paperwork you shoved in a drawer in December needs attention. January is tax returns and credit-card bills and queueing at the post office to return ill-advised sales purchases.

With that in mind, I decided right then and there to take a different approach. Now, I don’t make punitive New Year’s Resolutions anymore. Instead, I make a list of a few little things that will actually enhance my life, make January a tiny bit easier, and still tick the box in my head that tells me that opening a fresh clean calendar requires at least a semblance of formality and ceremony and listmaking.

This year, these are my goals:

  • Try to do my 10-minute daily yoga, because a non-achy life is a happier life, but feel no guilt if I forget or don’t feel like it.
  • Feel free to give up on books I’m not enjoying. Life’s too short to plough through something that feels like a slog.
  • Don’t give up alcohol entirely, but not in a mindless Christmas way; make sure every drink counts. Make it a weekend treat, and stick to the good stuff (posh tonic, Christmas-gift gin, expensive low-sugar wine).
  • Stop doom scrolling. Be rigorous about this, because 2021 is a bin fire. (But as long as doom scrolling doesn’t feature, stop feeling bad about overall screen time).
  • Buy one book a month from my “need to read” list, and really enjoy reading it. Write a Goodreads review to cement it in my mind.
  • Call my parents more often. Remember how much better I feel when I don’t treat this as a chore.
  • Go for long walks every day, whatever the weather, and look at the horizon. Breathe deeply. (This little promise is currently being ruined a bit by the new lockdown exercise rules, but it can wait).
  • Treat good food as an investment. Buy, cook, and eat delicious things I know I enjoy, rather than the endless January lettuce paraded on Instagram.
  • Run more, but focus less on pace and more on scenery — basically, focus on the good, enjoyable parts.

So far — despite the fact we got plunged back into lockdown this week and I’m not allowed to go out for a run and a walk, so I have to choose between the two, which feels every so slightly jail-like — I’m happy to report that even in a pandemic, a non-punishing January remains a better option than a January devoted slavishly to “self-improvement” ever did (“self-improvement” being a definite misnomer, of course; an improved self would surely have an improved mood, and I never did).

I’ve done a bit of yoga, but not every day. I’ve had a jog on icy fields with my daughter and not secretly fretted about the pace of it. I’ve read a couple of brilliant books which have transported me to worlds I hope one day to visit. I’ve had some beautiful truffle and mushroom pasta and some red wine so silkily smooth it was like drinking velvet. And we’re only a fortnight down!

I’ve also noticed that my list has a general theme, and that theme is kindness. Kindness to other people, of course (my parents, mainly, although now that I think about it, I see it’s quite arrogant to assume that my phone calls genuinely enhance their lives), but mainly to myself.

New Year’s Resolutions of the traditional sort, the sort that exist to try to integrate a difficult, unappealing habit into the mainstream of one’s life — those ones have an edge of unkindness in them, I think. They involve judging oneself, finding oneself wanting, and trying to correct the imbalance with routines that are rarely enjoyable or sustainable. And whilst I can see that this kind of thing has a place, I am still here to tell you: that place should never be in the depths of miserable winter.

Starting the year with a bit of, well, self-indulgence — a bit of going easy on oneself, at the very least — is not only more sustainable, but it’s genuinely more rewarding in the long term. Probably not just for you, actually. Probably for your long-suffering family, too.

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