New Year's resolutions: Why we should probably all resolve to stop making them this year – Alastair Stewart

"What the hell is a glute?" was the question which began my reasonably consistent gym routine since August.

People who make New Year's resolutions often quit within a few weeks (Picture: Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images)
People who make New Year's resolutions often quit within a few weeks (Picture: Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images)

Beyond a desire to lose weight and get a bit healthier, there was no grand proclamation, no well-intentioned plans for twice-a-day attendance with a marathon by Christmas. Little by little, bit by bit, a new routine was formed.

And there was not, and will never be again, some grand indulgence of New Year resolutions to make bold changes. For years I made that mistake, and precisely nothing ever changed. The most significant transitions happened when they were made quietly and as needed. Not on January 1.

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Everyone considering a New Year's resolution should watch a mafia movie. Stick on the Godfather, Goodfellas, or Donnie Brasco and practice omertà, the code of silence. Why? Because announcing resolutions invites bad juju.

We have all been out with those friends who swear there is no way, they are not drinking tonight. They end up obsessing so much about what they cannot do that the temptation to break the vow triples. New Year's resolutions are the same. 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.”

If Christmas is the most commercialised time of year, then New Year's Eve is the only part of the 365-day calendar that holds the pretence of pure magic. Anything is possible in the space of one strike of a clock, but it's an illusion of the highest order. Such well-intentioned end-of-year nonsense conveniently ignores that people have already had that second glass of champagne, the extra cake, and the night beckons with more of both.

None of it would matter, save for a country sitting on the edge of a mental health catastrophe. Public Health Scotland noted in their health impact assessment the evidence that the rising cost of living harms mental health. "This will further compound and exacerbate the inequalities in mental health outcomes that the country was already seeing as a result of the pandemic." Despite this, as experts at the Royal College of Psychiatrists in Scotland pointed out, the budget statement by Deputy First Minister John Swinney earlier this month did not include a funding increase for mental health services.

There are a plethora of good practices to get into in the New Year. For many, it is a clean slate, a clear demarcation and a chance to start something. That should not be belittled. But this dreadful tidal wave of nauseating platitudes and empty proclamations is good for no one. Why indulge each other or encourage resolutions when failure is inevitable? Why add to it with faux high hopes that pave the way for the January blues, self-flagellation and the February lament?

Forbes magazine reported nearly 80 per cent of people admit to abandoning their New Year's resolutions by February every year. Strava, the internet service for tracking physical exercise, documented over 800 million user-logged activities in 2019 and found that most people tossed in the towel on January 19.

So prevalent is the collapse of New Year's resolutions that ‘Quitter's Day’ is recognised worldwide as the second Friday in January – the most likely day for people to abandon their resolutions. You can understand why: winter, tax returns and the realisation of overestimated goals quickly supplant the promise of better and brighter versions of our past selves as the clock strikes 12.

Per Carlbring of Stockholm University tracked the progress of 1,066 people who made New Year's resolutions. He categorised their intentions into two classes. “Avoidance goals” involved giving up something like sweets, alcohol or social media, while “approach goals” focused on taking something on, like a new hobby or fitness regime. On average, the participants were about 25 per cent more likely to meet their approach goals than the avoidance goals. According to a YouGov survey, 35 per cent of people making resolutions follow through to their goals, with 50 per cent managing to keep some of their resolutions.

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Most of us feel the need to make a health pledge after the hedonistic holiday period. However, abstinence from food, drink, and various bad habits seems centred on punishing ourselves. There is something inherently human about naming your resolutions, but by doing so they then seem to become promises we will inevitably break, not routines to fall into, a meaningless cliché and one big ‘Chekov's Gun’.

But many fitness-related New Year's resolutions – as optimistic as they may initially seem – are unlikely to have a very long shelf life, as people gradually fall out of their routine just weeks into the calendar year. Very few people will succeed with cold turkey approach or a sudden jump into the deep end of doing something radically different. Cutting the booze, losing weight, smoking, or other lifestyle changes can only be positive. Still, most will fail when trying to do them all at once and when you encourage an avalanche of expectation rooted in one night and the first month of the year.

For your own sanity, enjoy the Christmas and New Year period. Do not punish yourself for enjoying life, particularly not in such a challenging climate. If you are to make a change or give something up, do it now or later, but don't inject New Year with an allure that will only cause disappointment later. And besides, take a moment to think of those of us battling the Christmas waistlines who need to jump from a western Christmas season into an Orthodox one on January 7.

In the meantime, wishing you and yours a very Happy New Year.

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