The New Year is nigh; it is a paltry 17 days or so away as I write this. Everywhere, from Norfolk, Virginia, to Norfolk Island, United Kingdom, individuals will be preparing to make their New Year resolutions and work on strategies to try to meet them. That is, assuming that the Mayans were wrong and that the world will not be ending in the next week or so.
Almost everyone makes New Year resolutions. They range from weight loss, to taking up a new hobby, to going back to school, to quitting smoking and/or drinking, more exercise to better financial responsibility. On a personal level, I have decided that making New Year resolutions could be a waste of time if I do not have the willpower to follow through. I also decided, quite a while ago, that it was not a calendar date that would make the making of resolutions work – rather, it was the determination to succeed in doing something that would make one a winner, that would enable me to accomplish the goals I set.
As a culture, as a people, we value dates. We celebrated them, for example Independence Day, Labor Day, Valentine’s Day, birthdays, engagement days, anniversaries, graduation days, and the day we get a surgery, the day we met our spouse. We value milestones, and with the New Year coming, it is not really radically different. So for those who have decided that the New Year will usher in significant changes, I will offer both the optimistic, and the pessimistic sides of the story. I will also encourage you to make the resolutions, and stick with them. Before I offer my two bit piece of advice, I will tell you a recent story – a true story – concerning a friend.
I have a friend that I have come to value a lot. Friends are human beings, and as such, we can expect them to have weaknesses. He seems to have quite a few, including having been to federal penitentiary a couple of times over simple theft, grand larceny, breaking and entering, and stealing stuff from parked cars, stealing alcohol and such. He did actually spend quite a while in solitary confinement at the Onion – one of the max-security jails in Virginia, I am told. Well, maybe I should revise the designation after all – he is an acquaintance, not a friend – lest I burn any currency that demonstrates my respect for the law. Anyway, two years ago, he decided to change his entire lifestyle, and stop doing the whole jail thing. But that was not the entire story.
Since he was nine, he was stealing cigarettes – Virginia Slims – from his mother and father, and drinking their liquor with equal zeal. By the time he was in High School, he was a bona-fide drunk, and was going to substance abuse classes. You could say he is an old dog in the whole business, and his drinking has really been a problem. As has his smoking cigarettes, smoking up to one pack of cigarettes a day.
On 21st November this year, the day before thanksgiving, he just up and quit drinking and smoking. That is what they call “cold turkey”. One day he was smoking one pack of cigarettes a day, the next day he was done. Ok, so that did last all of three days, but he did quit drinking, going from three, 40-ounce bottles to drinking only coffee. That is what I call determination. And close to one month later, he is still going strong. The beauty of his decision was that it was not just out of respect for a date, or for some calendar celebration, but from the realization of what the alcohol and cigarettes were doing to his body. So, when it was time to quit, it was time to quit.
Making decisions and sticking to them – resolutions – is not easy. As human beings we are prone to making poor choices, often because we do not recognize their potential consequences, and even when we do, we ‘minimize’ them. For example, we smoke a cigarette, and we never think that it is the one that will cause cancer. We think that maybe it is the second, or the third, or the hundred thousandth. And since our grandmother has been smoking all her life and she is 96 and strong, we believe that we are immune. We hope for the best, do not prepare for the worst, but know that one of these days, it will happen.
About 40 percent of the New Year resolutions that will be made this New Year will be broken within one month or so of their being made. New Year resolutions are often a good way of making us feel good about ourselves. We determine to do things, to change our lives, to do better, and we really in our hearts mean it. After all, it is very rare for anyone to make a decision suggesting that they are going to be the meanest person for most of the rest of the year. So, we can look at the New Year as one of those days when the whole world is generally full of goodwill, of do-gooders who intend only the best. And then, January 2 happens.
It is possible to make resolutions and stick with them, despite the odds against the general trend of New Year resolutions succeeding. The most important thing to do is to recognize that the resolutions will not succeed unless one is determined. Yes, in boarding high school, I learnt that the most important thing in life was determination. It is the unrelenting belief that you can do things even when there are often insurmountable difficulties. That negates the need for a date; because any date you pick on the calendar, which will be your date of success. But, for the sake of argument…here is what you do. Make your determination and your resolutions. Tell someone about it, preferably the one person you fear most, because you know that they will not relent, that they will be the voice in your head, reminding you all the time what you vowed to do. If you have children, take them to a really special place, and tell them about the new resolution. Children have annoyingly good memories and rarely forget anything you tell them, especially if they are about 8 or 9 or thereabouts. And you know they will remind you. Also, place a reminder – such as a note – somewhere you cannot miss it, for example the refrigerator. It gets so annoying you will actually want to take it down, but again, sheer willpower here is helpful.
When you think about it, it really comes down to rational choice. Rational choice suggests that as human beings, every decision we make has some rationale. You wake up in the morning and can decide to stay in bed or go to work/school. You go to work/school and can decide to be troublesome, or be cooperative. Whatever you do, you have a choice. The beauty of choices is that we can think of them very carefully and select the best option. Rational choice suggests that we know what options we face, that among the options, we can order them transitively (i.e. in order of preference), and that among the choices we have our own preferences. When we think of these preferences, we do what we call a “cost-benefit analysis” and then we select the most beneficial choice. That is all there is to it. The decisions we make, the resolutions we will make on the 1st of the year, will boil down to whether we have the wherewithal to stick with our chosen course of action, because it has more benefits for us.
Go make those resolutions, and stick with them.