Resolving to Solve in a New Year

New Year's Resolution

What is it about turning the page on the calendar that gives people the urge to make drastic changes in their lives? Is it the sense of renewal that a turning year brings that makes people believe they can erase the ignominy of the past year or past mistakes with changing the last digit of the annual sum? What happened to the positive points of that year? Do we keep it all, or should we erase the whole thing and go with the New Year as a completely new start?

The New Year is a time when people believe they can make a new start and make changes to their habits and behaviors in a positive way. It is, in a way, a representation of hope that things do change and that they can be better, that we do not have to accept the status quo and continue in old patterns of maladaptive behaviors forever. That being said, where did it all come from?

Apparently, this New Year’s resolving tradition has some seriously ancient roots. The Babylonians made promises to their deities every year to set their financial balances back to rights by paying back any debts of money or honor. The Romans made promises to Janus (yep, that’s where we get “January,” people) to start their year off on the right foot. Many other religious cultures have holidays of sacrifice and atonement (though not always falling on the western calendar New Year). So, the idea of making promises to change at the turn of the recognized year is not by any means a new tradition. That being said, the time frame for which we make our lofty, or not so lofty, goals for the coming annum should be recognized for the arbitrary thing that it is.

Our modern calendar is a great collaboration of historical conventions and narcissistic tendencies of various rulers, conquerors, and religious movements through the years. Science and fiscal convenience pretty much put the finishing touches with astronomical observations of solar year and figuring out how to balance the account of hours with appropriate counting of days. As it is, we still have to tack on the extra day every four years in February to make it all come out correctly. As our tiny blue planet does its wobbly little dance around our home star, it provides the circuit of time that provides a nice beginning and ending of that arbitrary temporal cycle that gives us a chance of renewal.

Almost half of the adults in America today make New Year’s resolutions. However, of that half, only about 12% actually make good on their promises. Sadly, only about half the people who make resolutions actually believe they will achieve the goals they set (possibly a contributing factor to that pitiful percentage that succeeds, but more on that later). Maybe it is a misunderstanding of what a resolution is? To dig into this, I decided that perhaps I should see if I could clarify matters of meaning. That word we keep using, I’m not sure it means what we think it means…

I’m going to pass over the musical references of progression from dissonance to consonance in a chord. An interesting sideline, and one that appeals to my heart, but not really illuminating for the chosen topic. We’ll also skip over the technical aspects of quality and acuity for digital media of the visual or auditory variety. The word resolution is the noun form of the verb to resolve. Not much help there. It also is a “state or quality of being resolute”… um, yeah. Ok, moving on. Being resolute means you are determined. Apparently, there are some people out there who missed that part, say about 88% of the people who make New Year’s resolutions, it seems. A resolution is also a course of action. Better. Maybe this is where we are all missing the boat, or rather where the boat is missing the destination and instead founders in the Sargaso of ill planned goals? So many people have ideas about things they want to change and positively no clue on how to go about it. Even if you know where you want to go, you need some plan for how to get there. So, finally, the last definition I want to address is that a resolution is “an explanation, as of a problem or a puzzle; a solution.” That is the best one I have seen so far. A resolution is a solution to a problem. However (and here I will listen for the groans and curses of the linguists), resolution looks like you are solving something over and over again, re-solving. Now, doing something again and again could be identified as practice, but it doesn’t always make perfect. Sometimes it does. It can also indicate if you are solving something over and over without satisfaction, that the approach may not be the best. It is possible that a different method might provide better results.

Overall, I still think I prefer the last definition. A resolution is a determined plan to solve a problem perceived in the current status of any given sector of our respective situations. We do not have to accept lack of total success as failure. It is just practice, and we can learn from the attempts.

Last but not least, making resolutions… As evidenced by the number of people who seem to lack confidence in their ability to reach their identified goals, and the actual number of people who let go of their resolutions sometime around February, perhaps there is a lack of skill or desire in making the promises of change to the New Year. In light of this potential problem, I’ve created a little instruction manual for making resolutions (and you don’t have to save them for the New Year as the steps are actually of the one-size-fits-any-date variety):

  • Identify the problem.
  • Identify what the solution to the problem might be.
  • Set a goal for the solution and visualize what the successful solution looks like.
  • Identify a realistic timeframe for the solution.
  • Think of it in terms of the present tense. Define the solution in positive, present tense, and concrete terms. I know this sounds strange, but think of it this way: If your solution or goal is for healthier living habits, saying “I’m going to start [eating better, exercising more, stop smoking],” your brain says “Great, let me know when you actually start!” Make your daily statement of resolve in a firmly determined way, “I am living a more healthy life by watching my portions” or “I am taking care of my body by exercising 30 minutes every day.”
  • Use visual cues and keep them before you every day. Pick positive images, because our brains gravitate towards the pleasant and avoid the unpleasant.
  • Identify steps and initial goals (and realistic timeframes) on the way to the ultimate solution that you can check off as you progress.
  • Reframe backsliding or relapse in a positive way as opportunity for learning. Missteps do not have to result in a plummet back to square one. They are a cue to refocus on the path to your goal.

So, this little ramble started out to be a pondering of what and why people make New Year’s resolutions. It did not end up where I thought it would. Maybe that is a lesson, too. A journey of change sometimes ends up at a different destination than originally expected, and that isn’t always bad. Sometimes the goal is not the end, and in truth, perhaps it shouldn’t be. Changes that we decide to make for ourselves should be a journey of discovery, and it is the small, measurable successes along the way that matter and will motivate us to continue on the road.

2 thoughts on “Resolving to Solve in a New Year”

  1. It’s funny how an arbitrary point on a calendar can make people feel. In general, I think most people who make resolutions feel somewhat let down by themselves and/ or their behavior. I could be wrong. Because of a bias towards emphasizing the negative in our lives, we’re wired to see those things we think of as negative more clearly and readily than the things we think of as positive. For myself, this year has had many bright points, but protracted bouts of depression have made it seem less stellar than it objectively probably was. That being said – from the viewpoint of someone who used to make resolutions and stopped doing so many a year ago – I think resolutions, in themselves, are mostly an attempt at optimism. Rarely have I seen anyone announce a resolution, but they had that twinkle of hope in their eye. We hope for better things; to be better humans – whatever form that hope takes. For many people, the change of the calendar year feels like an opportunity. It can be shedding the old like dry skin, or putting on the new. I think the perception of opportunity fuels that hope, and for many – a long time ago myself included – New Year’s Resolutions are a way to give that hope a shape, to feel it as something tangible and more real than a transient emotional state. I think New Year’s resolutions, whether they are followed through or not, are essentially about hope. At least, I hope they are.

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