Resolutions are dumb
I don’t make New Year’s Resolutions.
At my age, I am well aware of the fact that my bad habits are good and entrenched. I also enjoy giving free rein to a certain number of my favorite logical fallacies and cognitive biases, because (a) I just do not have the time to become wiser right now and (b) frankly, they make the world feel less icky more often than they negatively affect my life.
So long as I continue to aggressively employ the Ostrich Effect.
My very favorite is the Current Moment Bias.
Because who wants to buy an apple for Tuesday when we could buy a brick of chili chocolate for right frakking now?
No one wants that stupid apple.
I mean, I’ve made changes in my life.
Nearly one year ago, on January 17, I smoked my last cigarette.
If you encountered me during one of the five days following January 17 last year, I’d just like to formally apologize for (insert unpleasantry encountered here). I’ve kicked some, socially speaking, much worse habits than cigarettes, but I’d rather kick any one of them all over again from scratch rather than have to quit smoking again.
My grandfather, a hard-nosed American man with the latent rage of the German people and resting disdain face, used to get disgusted with me. “You want to quit something you just quit.”
Okay, old man. That may have worked in 1920, when everybody just sat around in the dark eating raw potatoes and weeping quietly to themselves but living through it with the singular goal of one day telling their pampered grandchildren to “suck it up, buttercup.” But I have some serious Generation X existential angst to deal with here, fella. And I had no guidance as a teenager or young adult, so I chose role models like Courtney Love and Sinead O’Connor and that chick from Garbage.
Shirley Manson is my Patronus, guys.
Okay. Crap. Oh, see what happens? You mention the ’90’s grunge scene and I’m off like Kurt Cobain’s flannel when the heroin starts leaving his system.
Too soon? #fauxembarrassment
The point, anyway, is that quitting smoking is one of a handful of really hard habits I’ve managed to break. But I did not manage to break that habit by making it a New Year’s resolution. Actually, my inclusion in the demographic of “rational and intelligent adults who smoke nonetheless” was prolonged by trying to make quitting smoking a resolution multiple years in a row.
In 1996, I was as obsessed with Michael Stipe’s voice as I was with Billy Corgan’s face and Winona Ryder’s wardrobe.
So of course I purchased “New Adventures in Hi-Fi” (on compact disc, from The Wall, homie, represent) and as those of us with weak executive function are wont to do, I fixated on certain lines from certain songs. And something about the line “I had to write the great American novel” in the song “Wake Up Bomb” just embossed itself in my brain.
Hyperfocus is my favorite thing. That grandfather who used to tell me to just quit smoking if I wanted to quit smoking, as if that was even a thing that normal people were capable of? Same guy used to tell me that if I would just put half the dedication I allocated to memorizing every song I loved into my math homework, I would not be pulling 30 percent midterm grades in Algebra.
So quick math lesson: In 1996 I would have been 14 years old. Ooh, take that Herr Richtenfuhrer! Who can do math now? #shouldntbeproudofmyselfrightnow
Which means I was only slightly dumber than I am now in terms of actual intelligence, but I suffered from an astounding dearth of insight or maturity. Yet, I felt like it was time to decide on a path for my life.
I mean, I had one thing figured out at 14, that I should have just followed through on, which was that I was basically unemployable as anything but a writer. Even my maternal grandmother knew it, although her prediction, in my seventh year of life, that I would become an author was damaged pretty significantly by her follow up qualification that I’d be an author of childrens’ books.
I’m pretty sure we can all agree that I have not grown up to become a woman whose word choices or imagined realities belong in the hands of small children.
And so at 14, with the help of Michael Stipe, I made my first New Year’s resolution:
I will write the great American novel by the age of 21.
Honestly? At 14, I couldn’t have even told you how to get from my house to the grocery store half the time, unless I, too, was very motivated to get to said grocery store. So I hadn’t one iota of actual information on which to base this lofty goal, let alone any way of developing a plan to get there.
And it would be well past my 21st birthday when I realized that writing words on paper and turning them in for cash money might actually be a thing I could do in real life.
Honestly? I’m still shocked every single day that someone pays me to do this.
In any case, making a resolution of my goal didn’t work. It was the crushing pressure to reclaim my identity from the jaws of a blindingly unsuccessful marriage and the abject poverty imposed upon me by the servicers of my breathtaking mountain of student debt that motivated me to land this gig. Obviously, this is an extreme example. But it’s a good place to start in understanding why resolutions don’t work.
They don’t work because that’s not how behaviorism works, Lebowski.
You don’t get to just calmly and clearly communicate to the rat that it’s illogical to continue pushing the cocaine button instead of the food button and expect it to change its fiendish ways. Our brains aren’t set up like that. For as brilliant and mysterious a thing as the human brain is, it’s truly astounding how counterintuitively it functions in the context of behavioral change.
Even if your resolution is to lose ten pounds by July, you’re not going to increase your chances of reaching that goal by deciding to focus on it starting January 1.
Cognitive biases are constantly running behind the scenes. They’re like the binary code of the Matrix. They’re just scrolling forever, always seeking out little pinpricks of potential dissonance in our preconscious awareness and patching them right the heck up with nonsense spackle ™ to prevent our noticing them. Because life is hard. And we don’t like to have to allocate time and energy to actually examining our lives and then basing our actions on insight and carefully crafted life philosophies.
Also, it’s really convenient to say that not only did we not lose ten pounds by July, that we actually gained fifteen by February, is because “resolutions don’t work, man.” Everyone knows that the New Year’s resolution justification is not something it’s acceptable to ever, ever call one another on.
Saying that something is a resolution, for me at least, is basically the same as saying “I want to communicate that I value the aesthetic – the theoretical concept – of completing Task X, but I do not intend to actually put in the effort to make it happen because I am still ambivalent to the reality of having completed it.” The excuse, at this point, is built right into the the entire resolution system.
I quit smoking because I took Chantix, and it slowly caused chemical burns to my skin from inside my body by the end of the first month, but I knew that if I quit the Chantix without quitting the cigarettes I’d never quit the cigarettes, so one day, about three weeks into the blister pack, I forgot my cigarettes at home and I didn’t go back to get them.
And the most important part of the whole thing: I told someone that afternoon, whose opinion of me I valued, that I’d forgotten them at home, and he said “if you can go without them this long you don’t ever need them again.”
I gritted my teeth at this smug, nonsmoking person whose opinion of me I really didn’t want to value at all, anymore, and resisted the urge to tell him that “you don’t know what it’s like, man,” in my best Garth Algar fallacious epiphany voice.
And I realized that I could never, ever smoke another cigarette again as long as I lived.
Because, if I did, he’d know I’d blown my best opportunity to trick myself into quitting.
And I quit. Just like the need for peer approval that motivated me to smoke through the nausea and shattering migraines that accompanied my first pack of cigarettes all those years ago, I used my ongoing pathological desire for peer approval to stay quit.
And sure, a little piece of my inner GenX grunge rock princess died, when I threw away half of an eight dollar pack of Camels so I could look cool in front of peers, but that’s okay.
It was time for her to go be with the lord anyway, if I’m honest.
And that’s how real change happens, you guys. Not by saying “I will (not) do X after Jan. 1.”
Have you ever seen that scene from The Office where Michael Scott “declares” bankruptcy and his dominant female just gazes at him like the freaking clown shoes that he is?
That’s what you look like when you expect that the fact that your New Year’s resolution is a New Year’s resolution will help it come to fruition.
Resolutions are dumb, you guys.
Just say no.