You Say You Want a Resolution? (h2so4 18)

Do your New Year’s Resolutions always fail? It may be because you have misunderstood their purpose. Heidi Pollock drops some resolutionary science on us and demonstrates why “losing ten pounds,” “joining the gym” and “quitting smoking” do not count as New Year’s Resolutions.

I have finally mastered the art of making New Year’s Resolutions, a skill honed by years of abject failure. Seven years ago I developed a fine-tuned Resolution Philosophy which has proven consistently successful in numerous clinical trials (and tribulations). In the interests of humanitarian aid, I am going to share my hard-won methodology with the world, in the hope that we may forever end the vicious cycle of making vain, fruitless and doomed resolutions such as “I will lose 10 pounds this year,” “I will go to the gym three times a week,” and “I will not park illegally ever again.”

For starters, a New Year’s Resolution should not be about improving your life, it should be about enriching it in a potentially unpredictable way. The new year provides you with a chance to do new things. Therefore, a New Year’s Resolution should not be something that you’ve already thought about doing; it should not be on your existing agenda. “Quit smoking,” for instance, doesn’t count because the fact that you shouldn’t be smoking is old news. A true resolution should be an addition to your life, should expand your horizons and help you grow as a person. It should be process-oriented and not require major psychological or physical changes. A solid resolution should not be too fixated on a specific goal; it should not be subject to a Pass/Fail grade; it should strive for a wide spectrum of achievement(s).

Here are the rules: You should always make three resolutions. This is partly to increase the odds of success, but mostly to direct the focus of enhancement outside the body. The tyranny of “diet” and “gym” resolutions is distinctly unhealthy. Resolutions should also be made to benefit your intellectual, emotional or artistic well-being. Make one resolution in the Health & Lifestyle category, another in the Education/Practice category and, most importantly, make one resolution in the Project/Task category. This last category is the wildcard designed to help your chances of actually fulfilling at least one of your three resolutions by year’s end.

My approach to making New Year’s resolutions may strike you as contrived to guarantee success, but I assure you, it isn’t. Last year, for example, I couldn’t even remember my Education resolution—so, obviously, that was a big failure. I also failed to succeed in the Health category: “eat one vegetable every day.” I’m a bread/cheese/fruit girl, so this was a bonafide resolution for me, a real challenge. Even after I began to count pea soup, pickles and red pasta sauce as vegetables, I still failed to live up to this laughably attainable goal. On the plus side, I now have a markedly improved tendency to order entrees that come with “julienned vegetables” instead of “mashed potatoes.” I may have failed to meet my goal, but I certainly acquired slightly better dining habits.

Luckily, thanks to my three- resolution rule, I was able to celebrate partial success this year thanks to my Project achievement: File Taxes. Admittedly, this included nine years of back taxes and was therefore a far cry from the simple task you might think. It is also important to note that I resolved to “file” taxes without mentioning the need to “pay” them, thereby increasing the resolution’s likelihood of success, if not the IRS’s happiness with my substandard citizenship.

Lesson The First: One person’s habitual practice is another’s daunting resolution. You might find that the laws of this country are motivation enough for filing your taxes, but it certainly wasn’t working for me. Never underestimate the value of any resolution, no matter how obvious, unnecessary, trivial or slight. My friend Susanne, for example, set her Practice resolution one year as “stop buying new black and grey clothing.” Three years ago, her wardrobe contained exactly three things that weren’t primarily black or grey; today, the majority of her clothes are of many colors. It’s worth noting that the sub-clauses of her resolution allowed her to replace existing black or grey items as well as permitting her to acquire black or grey items in a “new” clothing category (e.g., the purchase of a new black cardigan was allowed because, although she owned a black turtleneck sweater, a black “heavy” sweater, and a black v-neck “light” sweater, she did not, technically, possess a black cardigan sweater).

Lesson #2: Developing a new habit is more important than attaining an absolute goal. So what if Susanne fudged with the clothing “categories”; her resolution trained her to evaluate her purchasing habits. As for myself, I used to be in the habit of reading constantly, and while I don’t have proof, I believe I’ve slacked off in this regard over the years. This year my Education/ Practice resolution is: “read 2–3 books per month.” The goal seems too easily obtainable, even by my lax standards, but the resolution is designed to reinvigorate my reading habit, not to foster my acquisition of specific knowledge. I once resolved to “take a multivitamin daily”—five years later, I still carry a small plastic vial filled with vitamins to support this acquired habit. (Should you take this habit on, I strongly recommend that you choose vitamins bearing a popular brand-name stamp if you are likely to be a traveler subject to security searches). Of course, under the rubric of my resolution program, “daily” resolutions are actively discouraged, but insofar as they lead to new habits, they can be acceptable.

Lesson #3: Include fail-safes. Although my reading goal is three books per month, if I pick up George Eliot’s Middlemarch I’m not going to berate myself for squeezing in The Tao of Pooh just to make my minimum number. While habit development is decidedly the critical feature of a good resolution, your goal should be attainable. Case in point: I happen to have very lazy bedtime habits, so this year my Health resolution is “wash face before going to sleep.” My intent is to use cleanser and, in an ideal world, moisturizer, but if all I manage to do is splash some cold water near the vicinity of my head, then at least I’ll still stand the chance of meeting my stated goal.

Lesson #4: Keep it simple. The “cold water provision” won’t just help me achieve the habit formation and goal attainment of “washing my face”; it really represents a much larger and infinitely more important aspect of good resolution making: the theory of greater returns. I happen to know that if I’m standing at a sink, about to slosh some water on my face in an effort to maintain my resolve, I’m highly likely to cave in, locate some cleanser, and actually do some scrubbing. Furthermore, I also know that every time I clean my face I feel guilty about not doing the same for my teeth. Regressing even farther, brushing my teeth often leads to flossing them as well. But, what I really know about myself is that there is absolutely no way I could ever, in a million years, possibly “wash my face, brush my teeth and floss—every single night before going to sleep—for the whole year!” So, I’ve kept the resolution simple: I’m aiming for cleanser, hoping for floss, but ultimately counting on water to see me through.

Lesson #5: Plan ahead. What I mean by this is plan ahead for your next New Year’s Eve and make sure one of your resolutions is entertaining enough to discuss. Pick up a new skill—plumbing, knitting, bird watching, playing the ocarina. Develop a random expertise—opera, knowledge of where the rotating bars are, olive tasting, croquet, formal gardening. Memorize something—poems, star constellations, the common ingredients of shampoo. Vow to write a letter once a month—to a grandparent, a politician, a company that has brought you joy (“Dear Mars, Inc., Thank you for the M&M!”). Read something you normally wouldn’t—Scientific American, Architectural Digest, Edward Gibbon, Teen People. Eat things, visit places, make stuff.

The point: Remember. It is almost impossible in life to master a skill, interest or knowledge that is completely pointless. If you disagree, then try to prove me wrong! Seriously. I really have no interest in going to a New Year’s party next year with a bunch of unimaginative grumpy, starving thin people. •