That my new year saw a rough start is a huge understatement. I spent its first three hours crying alone in my room, for reasons I shall not disclose for the reader’s own good. I made a list of New Year’s Resolutions—with one item left unfinished, to be determined sometime later (should I go with “read 40 books” or “drink more water”? It’s a tough choice). Ironic.
Developing that list put me in an exceptionally contemplative mood—or at least that’s what I assumed was happening—as I went over my past year and how I’d lived it. I felt simultaneously pleased and lonely: pleased because I found myself capable of ruminating over 2019 with an ample sense of satisfaction, and lonely because I realized once again how most of the things from the past year were up to me, and how most of the things in the new year were up to me too. Certainly not because of the disappointing number of new friends I’d made.
Save for some timezone-related discrepancies, the entire world had encountered 2020, for the first time, together. Everyone used to live in 2019, but now everyone lived in 2020. Yet every single individual, myself included obviously, had their own 2019 and 2020. And that’s what making a New Year’s Resolutions list is all about: declaring what and how my new year will be. Not yours, not ours. Mine. My growth, my progress. My new beginning. Another chapter of my life.
But does it work?
This naturally individual nature of New Year’s Resolutions both make and break their efficacy. Most of us are forever locked up in a love-hate relationship with ourselves, wanting us to succeed and feed, but never as capable of acknowledging our successes and failures as an objective observer may be. We see the best of ourselves when we’re alone having that glorious moment writing an essay at 2am in the library; we see the worst of ourselves when we’re getting through that hangover or secretly sneaking off with a snickers bar from our younger sibling’s Halloween stash. All this easily makes us the best experts of ourselves. It would be ridiculous to ask someone else to make your list of resolutions for you; you love and hate yourself best. So of course your own list works and fits best.
Yet it is equally true that promises to oneself are some of the hardest to keep. We’ve all been there. You swear to yourself that you’ll get this essay done by noon; it drags on till you call it a day and decide to pick it back up tomorrow. You read a self-help book and decide to be confident from now on; you’re insecure browsing the cheesy titles in the self-help section, warily eyeing the very distinguished-looking gentleman poring over a distinguished-looking expert’s newest book on James Joyce and linguistic metaphors.
Another notable factor is the significance of a new year. After all, New Year’s Day, not to mention dates in general, is a social construct; there is nothing inherent in a new year that boosts change and/or progress. Yet the celebrations and messages involved, along with the flood of New Year’s posts on social media, did have a recognizable effect on me: they provided a social context to my individualistic resolutions. Comparing oneself to others is rarely recommended, as many focus on and rightfully condemn the habit of valuing oneself and acting according to the external—being a “second-hander,” as Objectivists say. But what about competition and context? Society and culture?
I doubt I’d have made or conceived of any resolutions if there was no New Year’s Day, and people hadn’t made an implicit agreement to make and share their lists online. Does it seem shallow, this admission that I have done it after being inspired by convention and social media? Maybe. It’s true, though. Seeing a friend’s list of her resolutions was what prompted me to make my own, and the rest of our society’s New Year’s culture—sardonic (said too many times, though, to be honest) jokes about the gym crowd diminishing over time, 2020-inspired designs, etc.—that envelops January 1st and a considerable portion of the end of December/the rest of January has been reminding me regularly of my promises to myself, at the very least. The New Year’s culture has thus made me want my new year-new me self to be the best, and my resolutions the most substantialized. There’s clearly more to New Year’s Day than putting things off to the new year.
At the time of writing this article, it is the 10th of January. I can’t say I’m proud of my first 10 days of 2020; I still haven’t decided what will be the unfinished resolution on my list. Yet while I can’t say making a list of resolutions has had or will have a substantial effect on my lifestyle, I do believe that it has pushed me to properly diagnose and think about myself and my life, which may potentially lead to some changes, if qualified and minor: I have now a boosted awareness of how little water I drink, a desire to count the number of books I read, and a sense of alarm at my sleeping habits. Will I keep my promises to myself to drink, read, and sleep more? Like any other honest writer would admit, I can’t say—maybe to some extent, hopefully. Did making this list of New Year’s Resolutions encourage me to assess myself properly and as detachedly as possible? Yes. For a member of a species that regularly consumes physically harmful substances, makes life choices based on other people’s judgements, and pathologically either over-glorifies or over-criticizes itself, that’s something. Socrates would be proud, though Marie Kondo or my walking tracker app may not be.