Susan Stewart: Open to keeping New Year resolutions

ON reflection, they can be hard to achieve on your own, writes Susan Stewart

The OU is offering free courses which you can use  to start small and learn something new. Picture: Contributed
The OU is offering free courses which you can use to start small and learn something new. Picture: Contributed

At this time of year, it’s hard not to feel compelled to “reflect”. From adverts on TV, to posts shared on Facebook (and articles like this one), reflection is everywhere. We reflect on the year past, the year ahead, the implications for ourselves and our families, and the changes we might make.

I have to admit, it’s something I’ve been doing myself. About a month ago, I started a new job as director of the Open University (OU) in Scotland – the sort of thing that definitely prompts some festive reflection. It’s exciting. It’s daunting. It’s a privilege. It’s a huge responsibility. But mostly, it’s a massive opportunity.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

The OU is one of the largest universities in Europe with nearly 200,000 students, more than 14,000 in Scotland. What makes the OU unique is that it does exactly what it says on the tin – it really is open, with no requirement for entrance qualifications.

It was this openness, this commitment to making higher education more accessible, and to promoting social justice through learning that attracted me to this job. Now that I’ve got a month under my belt, I’m more enthused than ever. I can’t wait for 2016 to start and, working with the university’s dedicated staff, the chance to help our incredible students achieve their goals.

When you’re reflecting, you might well decide it’s time to make your own change. We love to make New Year’s resolutions, all fresh and ready for the challenges ahead… and then it all goes wrong.

Polling company YouGov found that nearly two-thirds of us, fully 63 per cent of British adults, intended to turn over a new leaf in 2015 – but half of those expected to have broken their own resolution by the end of January. Worse, a 2002 study by the University of Scranton found that fully a quarter of American adults who had resolved to make some sort of change had come unstuck by the end of the first week.

Why are we so terrible at keeping our life-changing, earth-shattering, fantastically well-intentioned New Year’s resolutions? The problem seems to be, in large part, that we think of them as life-changing, earth-shattering, fantastically well-intentioned. We bite off more than we can chew, and when it turns out that we can’t cope with our hopelessly optimistic goal, we give up entirely.

Dr Ben Gardner, a health psychologist at University College London, says that, put simply, our resolutions are unrealistic. Timing is also an issue; we feel obliged to make changes around now, and actually now just might not be the best time for you. It also means that, for all we’re reflecting, we might not have put the right amount of thought into what we want to do in order to meet the arbitrary decision deadline of 1 January.

But change is good, so how do we do it? The research consensus is that you should start small. Keep it manageable and achievable, and give yourself room to make mistakes. If you need help, we have a free app called Personal Best which can help you to consider, set and achieve goals. They don’t have to be about learning; it could be keeping fit, stopping smoking, changing diet, anything at all.

If your goal is to learn something new, it will come as no surprise to find out that I think we can help you with that, too. I’m not suggesting you should rush off and sign up for a degree (although if you want to, the final enrolment date for a February start is 7 January, so hurry!); as part of our mission to make knowledge accessible, we offer all sorts of quality learning for free.

OpenLearn has more than 800 free courses, from cyber security to bookkeeping and accounting, forensic psychology to musical theory, ranging in length from a few minutes to a few months. But it’s not just about us. FutureLearn includes courses from The OU as well as other universities from all over the world, and organisations like the European Space Agency and the British Museum – and they’re all free, too. You can use all these free courses to start small and learn something new, whenever it suits you – and who knows where it might lead?

From everyone at the OU in Scotland, have a Happy New Year.

• Susan Stewart is the director of the Open University in Scotland.