Covid: New Year's resolutions in the pandemic age are a mistake – Alastair Stewart

This year is ending precisely as I expected.

A New Year and a new you? The uncertainty of Covid makes resolutions more complicated than in the past (Picture: Jane Barlow/PA)

Anyone could tell you that Christmas was not a sure thing from early November onwards. Covid-19 was always going to have some impact on the festive season. Its decimation was a sad twist.

Nevertheless, some traditions struggle onwards, and the biggest we could do with ditching is New Year's resolutions.

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Like many of you, as the year comes to a close, I think about the ups, the downs, the good bits, and the stick-in-a-box-and-never-open-again moments from the last 12 months.

Sometimes it makes me a little blue. Sometimes thinking ahead makes me excited, as if anything is possible (and it is).

But when that excitement becomes a static list of ill-informed “should-do's” as we enter another wave of the pandemic, it's time to stop writing.

I have yet to meet a soul who has ever sat around and ticked off a complete list of resolutions – the ones who do seem to showcase their accomplishments for the sake of a gaudy LinkedIn post.

Others seem to be desperately sad they have not done what they set out to do.

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We are all struggling to figure out what happens next amid the pandemic. It seems unfairly self-repudiating to hold ourselves to the same old standards as we once did as the world goes to hell in a handcart.

If your evenings are spent in your gym clothes eating a KFC boneless bucket, I salute you. If your weekends are spent bingeing a TV show, stick another one on. If your only ambition is to keep your loved ones safe, your own health, and your livelihoods next year – you are not alone.

We have all been terribly hard on ourselves when we need to find the best happiness we can, where we can.

If we want to give up anything in the New Year, it should be the incessant belief that to be happy, we must punish ourselves and give up something, anything.

Midnight chimes, and the losers are already off: “I'm not drinking for six months” or “I'm going to lose five stones in a month”.

This often ignores the fact that people are on their second glass of Champagne and eating that extra slice of cake, with more to come before sunrise.

Cutting the booze, losing weight, giving up smoking, and other lifestyle changes can only be positive. But it creates an avalanche of doomed expectations when you try to do them all at once.

Change is a complex process. The failure to adhere to last year's resolutions can create guilt, disappointment, and self-loathing, and you get stuck in the mud.

Very few people succeed with a sudden cold turkey of anything. January becomes too much of a one-month endurance contest than a sincere effort for the long haul.

Surveys of New Years past reveal the same most popular topics: lose weight, save money, exercise more, cut cigarettes/junk food, take up a new hobby, make new friends, read more and cut out toxicity in your life. Whatever that means.

Willpower has nothing to do with it. The real problem is setting goals so high they are essentially thematic and heavily influenced by what we believe others expect of us.

Somehow it seems anything is possible in the space of one strike of a clock, but it's an illusion of the highest order.

It's not a question of sincerity or motivation but reality. When so much internal pressure is levied on succeeding in a limited time, it is likely that a spectacular binge will eventually ensue.

Incremental changes and introducing adjustments will increase the chances of a much more significant payoff by next year. And it will keep you motivated.

The problem with Covid is the virus makes incremental and consistent changes next to impossible. The external pressures in the world are so horrible that even regularly getting to a gym, seeing people, or committing to a new regime is extremely difficult.

As a Twitter user so aptly listed the other day, the words “Nicola Sturgeon is making an announcement/speech/addressing/deciding” induces palpations and a nervous twitch. Before you know it, we're locked in, locked out and locked down in no time at all.

That doesn't mean we should give up on resolutions. They can be an excellent catalyst for change. No one should ever underestimate the craving for a clean slate. The challenge is ensuring that your resolutions can work in a health landscape that changes shape and form every three months.

Sadly it seems the New Year is going to follow the same pattern as last: total, variable unpredictability subject to an unseen virus and political and medical responses.

I, for one, cannot make any apology that I did not lose those extra pounds. I was too busy worrying about a plethora of other entirely unforeseen circumstances; I know this and will not be making the same mistake in the run-up to this New Year.

As we kick off 2022, we should remember we still have the power to make a difference in our lives. But we must not forget that any transformations, ambitions, promises and schemes are subject to extraordinary events beyond our control.

I am not handing over my success or failure to fate – but it is time to admit that we live in such strange times that the element of 'circumstance' is more profound than in previous years.

Admitting that, and going into the New Year knowing this, makes for a greater chance of a happier year than last.

"Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead,” said Scrooge. “But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change.”

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