Features, Life

Oliver Burkeman on… New Year’s resolutions

You don’t have to launch the ‘New You’ this New Year. House Four’s columnist suggests you focus on Old You instead

There’s something about the New Year that turns even the most downbeat pessimist into a fist-pumping, high-octane self-improvement enthusiast, with boundless ambition and seemingly infinite willpower. So what if you’ve barely managed to jog twice around the park in the last six months? From now on, you tell yourself, you’ll be at the gym at six every morning, without fail. Never mind that you’re famous among your colleagues for being disorganised; this year, you’ll blow their minds with your hyper-efficient approach to work. Publishers of self-help books have a special name for this point in the calendar: “New Year, New You”. We’re drawn to the promise of a complete fresh start. But think about it for a moment: if the “complete fresh start” really worked, how come there’s such a big market for “New Year, New You” books every year? Wouldn’t most of us have achieved total perfection some years ago?

The trouble with this no-holds-barred philosophy of personal change – sometimes also adopted in the workplace by managers, eager to transform their employees into happier, harder workers – is that while it sounds simple, human psychology isn’t. Take, for example, the “focusing illusion”, which describes how we chronically exaggerate the effect that a single change will have on our lives. So you move cities, switch jobs or end a relationship – only to discover that you’re still the same old person you were before: a worrier, lazy, a perfectionist, and so on. This shouldn’t really come as a surprise. After all, the person who’s launching this “New You” upon the world – the person initiating all these changes – is none other than Old You, with all his or her faults. As the saying goes: wherever you go, there you are.

If the “complete fresh start” really worked, how come there’s such a big market for “New Year, New You” books every year?

In the context of work, specifically, another hazard of the full-throttle New Year mindset is that it tends to favour sheer energy – getting lots of things done – over efficacy, or getting the right things done. It’s dangerously easy to judge your work by how much effort you put in, and how exhausted you are at the end of the day, instead of by results. Yet in the world of hospitality, as elsewhere, effort and speed aren’t everything: the fastest bartender isn’t necessarily the best one, if all his customers end up feeling treated with insufficient attention. A hotel manager shouldn’t focus on doing as many tasks as possible during the course of a day, but rather the handful that make the most difference to the clientele. Likewise, if you manage other employees, be careful not to judge them by effort rather than outcome. It’s tempting to condemn the person who completes tasks in half the time, then takes a longer lunch break, as some kind of slacker. But isn’t she really just better at the job?

Instead of shooting for a complete fresh start this New Year, or resolving to become ultra-productive, we’d be better off making incremental changes – and, above all, focusing on making the right changes. One clever trick is to aim deliberately low. If you resolve to exercise for a mere two minutes a day, your goal is so ridiculously small that it can’t be intimidating, in the way that grander goals are. Then, you can increase your target by a minute a day until it grows more substantial. Or perhaps you’ll decide to do one thing differently at work – as opposed to everything – then add a new thing each month, through the year. Think of it as “New Year, Slightly Different You”. Admittedly, that’s sounds less impressive. But it’s preferable in one crucial respect: it actually works.

Read more from Oliver Burkeman… 

On staying cool.

On teamwork.

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