The New Year’s Resolution has a long and varied history. In early 1802 Walker’s Hibernian Magazine published an article making fun of the kind of resolutions that are broken even before the last of the Christmas chocolate disappears. Their list of satirical resolutions is occasionally still funny even two centuries later. One begins ‘Statesmen have resolved to have no other object in view than the good of their country…’ This joke might not make the cut for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, but context makes it clear that the idea of making (and swiftly abandoning) yearly promises of wild self-improvement was well established even in the early 19th Century. My favourite detail of this story is that Walker’s Hibernian Magazine was occasionally published with the subtitle A Compendium of Entertaining Knowledge – truly the QI of its time!
Charles Dickens also had something to say about New Year’s Resolutions. In an 1851 issue of his self-published pamphlet All The Year Round, Dickens describes ‘The Vow of The Peacock’ – a medieval banquet, during which knights place their hands on a roast peacock and declare their moral commitments to chivalry and loyalty and all the rest. There’s no evidence that this tradition took place at the end of the year - Dickens is uncharacteristically vague on the details - but we can easily recognise the spirit of this tradition in our own yearly resolutions, even if peacock has vanished from most of our menus.
I must make a slightly embarrassing confession at this point. You’ve probably already guessed it. I have always, always hated New Year’s Resolutions – and not just because I feel guilty about my many bad habits. I vividly remember sitting in school at age seven and being asked to write a paragraph about my hopes and ambitions for the coming year. This seemed quite a lot to ask, especially on a rainy December afternoon right before the Christmas holidays. I doodled aimlessly on the worksheet for about ten minutes, then threw it into the bin. Call me unimaginative, but I just could not think of anything to write. Even as an adult, I cringe when I see the phrase New Year, New You on adverts for everything from shampoo to running shoes. ‘New You?’ I sometimes think to myself, ‘but what’s wrong with the Old You?’
But wait – perhaps I’m being unnecessarily grouchy here. We arrange our lives around symbols, and few things have more symbolic value than the steady tick of the years (take my word for it, I’m turning 30 in June). I think there is a kind of joy to be found in throwing away the old diary and calendar and unwrapping their fresh new replacements, so why don’t I use this moment to also take up yoga / learn the saxophone / become fluent in mandarin?
The answer is that most New Years Resolutions are just too vague to be workable. Can I honestly say that I have learned the saxophone if I’m only able to fumble through the first few bars of Careless Whisper? And more to the point why? What’s the end goal here, and how am I going to account for the million small triumphs and tragedies that occur on the way to accomplishing anything worthwhile?
This is a problem a lot of my students run into when setting themselves targets. It’s easy to give yourself the target, say, of achieving a First in your degree. But what will it take to get there? What does the day-to-day experience of achieving this goal actually look like? I often recommend that students take long-term targets out of the picture altogether, and just focus instead on the here and now. Think of it like this – your overall goal is like your compass. It gives you your bearings and can point you in vaguely the correct direction, but it is functionally useless in helping you navigate all the small steps on the journey. For that, you need a map – something that can help you through the winding country lanes and thickets that stand between you and your goal. Trust me on this, I was a (very bad) boy scout.
When students ask for advice on setting targets, it’s always the map that I focus on, not the compass. A target like ‘I will spend three extra hours a week on researching this assignment and seek advice on structuring my writing’ is infinitely more helpful than ‘I will get 75% on this assignment.’ It can be helpful to check in with your compass occasionally, but this should always be secondary to the quotidian experience of making small changes and small improvements.
I don’t know if ever there was a knight who solemnly placed his hand on a roast peacock and declared ‘I will uphold the values of Chivalry by spending at least two extra hours a week on Noble Deeds and Righteousness,’ but that’s the way to get targets to stick. Think of this the next time you need to set a target for yourself, and if you have New Year’s Resolutions, then I’d love to hear them.
Oh, and by the way, I’m down to three cigarettes a day.Academic Writing