New year, new you? The art of making resolutions

By Will Bloor

The feeling and want of a new start is one that touches all of us time and time again. From school through to university, the end of summer and start of a new academic year has always signalled an unrivalled blank canvas upon which lies the chance to change for the better. But does this expectation of reinvention as the summer comes to a close actually motivate us to improve, or does it merely make disappointment inevitable?

At school, the ‘new start’ mantra was often developed for us.

At school, the ‘new start’ mantra was often developed for us. Teachers would bombard us with the new theme for the academic year, ‘excellence in everything you do’ or ‘forming effective habits’, and try and set the tone from the top down. What makes university more challenging but in many ways more personally fulfilling is that these mantras and goals have got to come from the bottom up. They have to come from us. Not from the university, not from friends, not from family, from us.

Just as most of those in the working world will sit down over Christmas and formulate a resolution for the New Year, many students will be doing the same at this time; the weird intermediary stage between the summer and the new academic year. Although these come at two very different times in the year, a lot of the lessons about personal change apply to both.

A BUPA poll at the end of 2017 asked 2000 adults whether they thought they would stick to their 2018 goals, but only half said they were confident that they would. Indeed, most people have broken their New Year’s resolutions by mid-January.

If New Year resolutions are this futile, are new term resolutions destined to fail and lead to disappointment? Not necessarily so.

A BBC Reality Check investigation into New Year’s resolutions revealed some telling signs as to why the majority fail. Fundamentally, and perhaps difficult to believe for most students, willpower is not enough. We have grown up to believe that this burning desire to power through obstacles to change will see us through, and in many ways, this will. But it’s got to go into more depth than a simple, vague commitment or goal.

Fundamentally and perhaps difficult to believe for most students, willpower is not enough.

Yes, positive, comprehensive change is easy to envisage when we’re sat on the train to Durham, comfortable and at ease. But when the time comes to wake up at 6am so you can make the gym before your full day of lectures, this drive for self-improvement will, undeniably, not be as strong.

This doesn’t mean willpower is futile, far from it. But crucially, this desire to change has got to extend into meticulous planning and, unfortunately, admin.

First and foremost, research shows that you are more likely to keep more detailed resolutions. In other words, instead of ‘I’ll procrastinate less on my summatives’, try ‘I’ll set myself a deadline of a week before the real deadline’.  Also, tying goals to specific cues can help. If you want to keep more in touch with friends from home, schedule in a call every Tuesday morning when you’re walking to that 9am, and set a reminder on your phone to confirm it with them the night before. As mad as student life can be, a bit of forward planning and integration of goals into your schedule can go a long way.

There are many other ways in which to stick to this ‘new start’ we all envision, but fundamentally, it’s a lot more boring in practice than we might think. Nonetheless, the benefits of sticking to a plan, as mundane as that might be, do outweigh the negatives of remaining stuck in bad habits.

For ideas to work, you must do so too.

Perhaps the message of this piece, then, is not to discourage anyone from changing their life in parallel with the new year. Far from it. We do place a lot of emphasis and pressure on this new start and this can lead to disappointment if approached at too vaguely and idealistically. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Smaller, pre-planned changes; changes you can stick to and gradually integrate into your life, are the way forward.

The idea of a new start is certainly not unreachable and can serve as a ‘kick-starter’ for motivation and action. But for ideas to work, you must do so too.


Featured image: Martin Deutsch via Flickr and Creative Commons

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