The new year is approaching fast, and with it you can count on a few things happening. Calendar sales will soon increase. So will gym memberships, nicotine patches and patches of vomit in the streets, promptly followed by a sharp but temporary decrease in alcohol sales. That’s right, it’s New Year’s Resolution time!
It’s a familiar routine, played out all over the western world. The change of year brings on a period of self-reflection in many people, which leads to bold declarations of fresh starts and changes for the better. Goals are set and attacked with gusto, some progress is often made, and we have a feeling of being in control of our lives. Then it gets to about February, March if you’re especially strong willed, and we slide back into our same old routines and bad habits. All that ambition dissolves away in the daily grind of life, and we’re left waiting for a new calendar to fire us up again.
I am far from innocent when it comes to this cycle, although I do have a variation on the theme. I made a new year’s resolution when I was about eight or nine to never make another new year’s resolution, and I have stuck to that to this very day! I’ve never really understood the human obsession with round numbers, new calendars and other arbitrary markers. Why wait for a new year to make a change? What’s wrong with right now? At least this way I spread my failures out over a year!
But what is it that makes us modern people so flaky when it comes to seeing our resolutions through? I think there are a couple of key factors. The first is that we just lack the will power. We lack it because we don’t really need it. We live comfortable lives, and for many of us, if we fail in our resolutions then we just carry on as we were. We aren’t often in positions where we have to change or face dire and immediate consequences, so we don’t have the motivation to commit fully to achieving something. If there is an easy option, most of us will take it.
The second factor is that a lot of our goals are unrealistic. This is linked to the first factor, in that if our lives are mostly good and our needs are broadly met, we have to aim a bit higher to come up with ways to improve them. A whole industry supports this idea that we must relentlessly self-improve, and is constantly finding ways to convince us that we’re unsatisfied with how we look, what we earn, how we live, etc, etc. Some people do have genuinely hard lives, and will have no trouble motivating themselves to strive for a better life, but the rest of us are trying to chase idealistic visions created for us by self-help gurus and advertisers. Just because some idiot somewhere increased his muscle mass, got all the girls and makes more money than I do, why should I feel that I can and should do the same, and if I don’t then I’ve wasted my life?
Having had that little rant, I must say that there are plenty of new year’s resolutions that are achievable, worth while and life improving. Better health, a more stable existence, or reorganising your priorities in life are all admirable goals, at any time of year too I might add! But until an exercise machine is invented that comes with a “motivation” button, it’s up to us to make it happen.
How do we make that happen? I’m glad you asked me that question! Through a strange mix of old and new. Ancient practices echo in the advice of modern “experts”, as I will attempt to explain.
In the times of the arch-Heathens, saying you were going to do something was a big deal. If you had an important task to perform, an oath could be taken. If you didn’t follow through on your oath, you didn’t just make a bit of a dick of yourself. You lost the confidence and support of others, and in a world as harsh and unforgiving as theirs, you didn’t want to be losing allies.
Oath taking was a serious business, and many of its customs can be found in modern advice about goal setting. An oath was taken publicly. The deed that was to be performed was declared in front of other people. This had the effect of making the oath-taker accountable to those people. Once the oath was out there, it had to be followed through, or everyone would know. This is very motivating, as the fear of embarrassment or shame is often stronger than the desire to quit on our goals. Modern motivators advise making goals public for this same reason, and also because if others are aware of our goals, they may be able to help us to achieve them, either directly or by giving us a kick up the backside when we need it.
Oaths also had clear goals and deadlines, eg: “I will kill Olaf before the winter nights!” Not “I’ll sort out that Olaf soon!” A more likely resolution these days would be to lose some weight or spend more time with your kids. But instead of keeping it open ended and vague, lock in some details. A deadline will focus you on the task at hand, and again makes you accountable. Being specific in your goals provides a clear target to aim for, and can also aide in deciding the steps you will take to achieve it.
Another feature of an oath was that there were consequences for failure. If Olaf was not killed before the winter nights, our oath taker may declare that he will be exiled from his home. This added another layer of motivation and accountability, as if the oath was not fulfilled, the oath taker was now doubled-down on following through with the punishment. If you failed at both of these, your reputation was done. This all sounds quite dramatic for us now days, but the concept still holds. If my new year’s resolution is to lose 10kg by June 1st so I can go on holiday and look good in my swimming togs, then an obvious consequence of failure to achieve my goal would be to forfeit my holiday. Still quite drastic, I know, but us modern people are soft!
The final aspect of oath taking that I want to discuss is sacrifice. This doesn’t mean you need to behead a chicken if you want to learn Spanish next year! Sacrifice in this context means what you are willing to forgo to make your resolution a reality. In arch-Heathen times, this could mean not cutting your hair until you had dispatched Olaf, or living by yourself in the woods until the deed was done. For us, recognising the sacrifices we must make is, I think, something that is often overlooked and a major reason for failure. If I want to cut down on my drinking, then I’m going to have to sacrifice going to the pub with the guys. Sure, it’s possible to still have my same social life and cut down on my drinking. But it’s also highly likely that if I carry on in the same circumstances as before, then I will fall back into the same behaviours. Will power usually isn’t enough to make a change, so sacrificing something to increase the odds of success is good sense. What we’re willing to give up is just as important as what we are willing to give.
At the heart of all this is ourselves. If we really want to make a change, then we can. But just wanting it is not enough. We need to be willing to do what it takes to make it happen. New Year is the traditional time for attempting to be a better person, but why wait for a change of date? Self reflection can happen at any time, and our goals may come from a more honest place if we take the time to fully think them through. The oaths of the arch-Heathens may seem deadly serious, and that’s because they were. They didn’t shoot their mouths off and not expect to be held to account for their words. That’s one lesson we can take directly from our ancestors. If we said only what we meant, and meant exactly what we said, the world would be a much quieter place!
All the best with your New Year’s resolutions, if you are making any. I have a few goals for next year, which in the interests of my own accountability I have shared with the relevant people. I still need to figure out the specifics of consequences and sacrifices. Maybe I should make a resolution to take my own advice? 🙂
Good luck to us all in 2018!