Saturday, January 2, 2016

Do New Year's resolutions make sense?

Like most people who regularly attend a gym year-round, I become annoyed each January. This is the time when the gym population swells with the New Year's resolution crowd.

The New Year's resolution crowd jams up the gym's parking lot. They turn the normally spacious locker room into a standing-room-only sardine can. They double or triple the population on the workout floor, where they dawdle around and putter about, taking twice as long as they should at each workout station.

Then around Valentine's Day, their ranks start to thin. By St. Patrick's Day, two thirds of them are gone. By Tax Day, they're all but a memory. Come Memorial Day, there is little trace that they ever existed.

Except, of course, in the cash flow of the gym. All gyms and fitness centers earn a significant amount of their revenues from this "New Year's resolution crowd". This group is highly profitable, because they sign one-year contracts, but they only use the gym facilities for 30 to 90 days. The New Year's resolution crowd is highly predictable, and I've been watching them come and go at the gym for thirty years now.

This observation raises the obvious question: Does the very concept of the New Year's resolution even make sense, or is it--like Valentine's Day, Halloween, and now, unfortunately, even Christmas, merely another opportunity for avaricious marketers?

After all, what is so magical about January 1st, that it might compel the average person to enact lasting change? Study after study has produced the same results as my gym observations: The vast majority of New Year's resolutions don't last the winter.

It's also true to say that roughly half of all marriages end in divorce, and yet, this is no good reason for abandoning the institution. Raw statistics all too often paint a pessimistic—and one-sided—picture.

I make multiple New Year's resolutions every year--in the areas of fitness, finances, and self-education. Some of these resolutions are sweeping. For example, I once resolved to double my monthly income. Most of them are more incremental. Almost every year, I resolve to use my time more efficiently and improve my diet.

Probably no more than 30% of my New Year's resolutions "take" each year--in the sense that they become lasting habits. So in my own way, I'm like those January-through-March dilettantes at the gym.

But three out of ten ain't bad, in the course of an entire lifetime. This is where New Year's resolutions do provide benefit: Make an annual habit out of setting improvement goals, and sooner or later, some improvement is bound to stick.

Maybe you won't learn French in a year or give up caffeine altogether. But you might start exercising moderately and watching less TV. Maybe you’ll learn a little bit of French, or simply cut back on your caffeine consumption.

Sometimes you need to set ten goals in order to fulfill three. That's the way it works. Don't allow misguided notions of perfectionism to keep you from achieving and appreciating those three completed goals. Focus on the three you completed, not the seven that fell by the wayside.

But this realization still doesn't answer the question: Why January 1st? After all, there is no reason you couldn't turn some portion of your life around on May 11th, September 3rd, or November 22nd.

You could pick any of those dates, but you probably won’t. Even the most individualistic and contrarian among us is susceptible to cultural programming. And we're culturally programmed to measure our lives by years. For most of us, this cultural programming has stuck. The year 2005 has a distinct set of associations for me. So do 2009, 1998, 2013, and 1984.

This makes the New Year a convenient time to wipe the slate clean, start afresh, strike out in a new direction. I like that clich├ęd imagery of the outgoing year as an old man, the New Year as an infant, full of potential.

It may be an illusion, strictly speaking, but it happens to be a useful one.

Another obvious question: Why not start your New Year on your birthday, which is truly your New Year?

This makes sense not only from a biological perspective, but also in the spirit of the hyper-personalization that characterizes our times. Why should you personalize your iTunes playlist, but start your New Year at the same time everyone else does?

While a case can be made for the birthday as individual New Year, I know of no one who follows this practice. Our birthdays fall at random times of the year. There is no natural series of milestones from one birthday to another, as there is between January 1st and December 31st. This makes it inconvenient to measure one's progress from birthday to birthday.

When I do turn over a new leaf in the middle of the year, it's almost always on April 1st. This is because in my part of the world, April is the first month of the calendar that is truly spring-like.

Although almost none of us engage in farming anymore, we’re still controlled by seasonal cycles. I long ago recognized my own seasonal biorhythms: I’m strongly motivated during the warming and cooling months, April through May, and then October through November. I hit my slumps during the dead of winter and the dog days of summer. This makes February an often-difficult month for me. It also means that my birthday, August 9th, is a poor time for me to take on new initiatives. As far as goal-setting is concerned, my birthday has little significance for me.

So yes, by all means continue making those New Year’s resolutions. January 1st is as good a time as any to turn your life around. You’ll be lucky to fulfill 30% of your resolutions; but 30% is way, way better than zero.

Pledge yourself to give up alcohol, learn a new language, read more books, or watch less TV. Eat better and exercise.

And join a gym—just not my gym. Today is January 2nd, the day when New Year’s Eve hangovers are all more or less gone, and the parking lot of my gym is filled to maximum capacity. It’s all you New Year’s resolution folks, just like every year, filling up the place in January. I wonder if I’ll be able to find a vacant parking space, an empty locker, or a free cardio machine.

But that’s all right…Most of you will be gone in a few months.