New Year’s Resolution Fail
I made two New Year’s Resolutions. I’m not going to tell you what they were. Mostly because I don’t want you to judge me. I will say that one was about not doing something and one was about starting a new practice. Today is January 14. I have kept up the new practice. I was able not to do the other thing for six days. I haven’t given up on it. But I also didn’t keep it. I’m trying not to judge myself, but I think it’s pretty clear that the sheen of the resolution has worn off–it loses its ability to inspire once it has been broken.
We all know that resolutions don’t work. They don’t really change our behavior. I don’t usually make them — maybe one out of every three years I make some resolutions. And yet, there’s something so attractive about the idea that a new year can bring a new you. Just resolving that things will be different can make them so. Much of the critique of New Year’s resolutions amount to a critique of willpower as an effective way to change our lives. We need to engage in practices and projects because willing ourselves to be different does not work.
I think this explains why the new habit, which is really a new practice, is something I have been able to keep doing. It makes me think that it is harder to resolve not to do something. Instead, that needs to be replaced with new practices.
I really don’t like to think of myself as at odds with my desires that somehow need to be defeated, and I think resolving to overcome oneself just makes you feel defeated when you give in to the desires. Replacing new practices might be a way of creating new desires instead of opposing the old ones. I like Aristotle’s way of thinking about ethical choice as what follows from reason directing desire by contrast to Augustine’s Neoplatonist sense of reason as what opposes desire. This configuration is why Augustine thinks weakness of will is a problem, because the opposition of reason to desire suggests that some part of us that is more truly ourselves must decide whether to follow reason or desire. It might know the reason is better but give into the desire in any case. Once the will has allowed desire to lead, reason cannot be made stronger than the will. The will’s power has overextended its knowledge. If Augustine is right, New Year’s Resolutions to resolve not to do something can never be kept.
So I’m trying to rethink the resolution as a positive practice where I am no longer opposing desires that need to be resisted, but developing and replacing them with new desires that I can affirm and pursue.
I think part of the problem with the New Year’s Resolution is that it follows from the demand to be a better person. I’m a bettering kind of person. I’m always working on becoming better at the things in my life — my yoga practice, my teaching, my running, my friendships, my relationship, my garden, my writing, my professional interactions. This demand requires a constant inventory of one’s failings, of the places one needs improvement. I get this from my Calvinist roots. To break this review of failing–demand for improvement–attempt at improvement–failure to achieve goals cycle, I want to rethink resolutions as new practices in a way that doesn’t have to be about improving. Resolving to change for the sake of change, for the sake of new possibilities to living and engaging the world might make the change itself feel less like a demand and the shortfalls of meeting the demand less like failure. I finally understand what Nietzsche means by thinking about ethical life as an aesthetic effort. The Greeks did not disagree.