New Year’s Resolutions

The thing about New Year’s resolutions is that they often serve to delay their own enactment. Suppose you resolve to lose weight or gain muscle, something that should have happened last month when you were still working your way through leftover turkey sandwiches. I could go to the gym today, you think, but wouldn’t it be better to start on Monday, when the week is new and it color-coordinates on my Google calendar? Why go out of my way to meet people now when I can just wait and start 2012 off with a bang? That said, properly executed, New Year’s Resolutions can be a source of motivation as well as an opportunity for reflection (akin to writing college admissions essays).

The best way approach to resolutions of all sorts is to take them seriously and, as a consequence, resolve realistically. Treat this as you would packing for a three-month trip to Europe with one backpack. In that case, you distill all the things you think it would be nice to have to one carry-on’s worth of items you know you will need. So when it comes to sizing up your resolutions, try to apply the same ruthlessness. Write down all the things you want to do. Then go through line by line and ask yourself what needs to happen and what could plausibly happen. Are you really going to read Virgil? No. Baby Rudin? Possibly. How about training for a marathon? Doubtful. Anything that doesn’t elicit an emphatic yes should be crossed off the list. Assignments, academic or personal, pleasant or unpleasant, have a way of dragging on once the initial enthusiasm has died down.

At the end, you’ll probably be left with a list of trivial, tempting, and urgent tasks, tasks which, with a bit of luck, you’ll be able to see through to completion. Sounds good right? So why wait until the New Year? We like them because they are fun, self-contained, and infrequent. The past is erased; we begin afresh, all with minimal expectation of follow through. But that’s misleading. A New Year’s resolution will no more melt away ten pounds than will tempurpedic shoes.

The process of writing down a set of realistic goals for 2012, then, isn’t about encouraging New Years Resolution-lite or about discouraging ambition. Rather, it’s an exercise in forcing yourself to confront what, in your life, is actually most important. Which friendships would you like to develop? What experiences would you like to have? What subjects do you find yourself wikiing at four in the morning? Ultimately, New Year’s Resolutions are not a referendum on our shortcomings; they’re more constructive, some semblance of an answer to the question: what gives us fulfillment?

Which is frankly ambitious enough.