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6 January 2024

New Year’s resolutions are tyrannical

Blame history (and the climate) for your failed post-Christmas pledges.

By Jonn Elledge

A few weeks ago some cheery research for the American business magazine Forbes revealed the unlikely fact that the typical Brit sticks to their New Year’s resolutions for four-and-a-half months – sticks to them, in other words, all the way up until mid-May. One reason I am cynical about this is that elsewhere in the same survey, from Opinium, more than half those surveyed (55 per cent) said their resolutions were likely to last for three months or less; I am struggling to reconcile the two figures. (Even this may be optimistic. A similar poll conducted for Bupa by Comres in 2015 found that 80 per cent had dropped out after three months; 43 per cent lasted less than 30 days.) 

But another reason for my cynicism is that today is Epiphany, last night was Twelfth Night, Christmas feels an aeon ago and I’ve failed miserably already. I’ve returned to the gym after a prolonged absence, which is good. Yet I have used the exhaustion this engenders, plus the fact that it’s raining, as an excuse to keep mainlining sugar, which is bad. I know by now not to even attempt Dry January: my last effort, some years ago, ended a week into the month when I found myself on a boat surrounded by men who work in sales, and come on – drinks were necessary. But even my more modest self-promise of a two-drink limit was history the moment someone uttered the siren phrase, “Fancy another?” I may well be an extreme case, but – at risk of sounding like one of those people who writes letters to the Telegraph, expressing the weirdest opinions you’ve ever heard in your life – surely, I can’t be alone. 

If you too have found your resolutions in pieces less than a week into 2024, though, I have a suggestion: don’t worry about it. If this, or something like this, happens every year, don’t torment yourself. We are set up to fail. This is the worst possible moment to try to change anything.  

It is, after all, horrible out: cold, wet and miserable, and every animal instinct we have tells us to stuff our faces and bunker down. It is no coincidence that so many cultures hold midwinter festivals, specifically to make the season endurable. It is absurd to imagine we shed the impulse to seek out light and company and calories just because the part of winter when we indulge is behind us.  

More than that: our calendar is simply wrong. The mechanics of the climate mean that the temperature is driven not just by the length of our days and quantity of sunshine, but by how much ambient heat the environment already contains. This phenomenon, known as seasonal lag, is why the hottest part of the summer tends to come some time after the summer solstice in June. (The extent of the phenomenon varies with location and environment: the second hottest month of the year in San Francisco is, absurdly, October.) But it is also why, while the days may be growing longer again, the Northern Hemisphere’s winter has barely started. 

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This raises the question of whether late December is the best time to hold a midwinter festival – or why we declare a new year at a moment in time when nothing much is new. The most ancient of Romans, more sensibly, began their year in March (this explains the baffling fact that the ninth to 12th months of the year are named for the Latin words for seven to ten). For centuries England followed suit, beginning its new year on 25 March, the Feast of Annunciation or Lady Day, the date when the immaculate conception was supposed to have taken place. For much of history, the concept of a new year was bound up with the concept of new life.  

In later centuries, though, the Romans reformed their calendar, to begin the new year in January. In 1582, Catholic Europe, led by Pope Gregory XIII, copied the Romans, and a couple of centuries of religious conflict, bloody-mindedness and administrative inconvenience later, England followed suit.  

All of which means that thanks to the machinations of an almost certainly mythical Roman king, Numa Pompilius, and a long-dead pope, you are attempting to become a better person at the lowest point of the year, the exact moment at which every cell in your body is telling you just to survive. You are trying to reduce your calorie intake when biology tells you to do the opposite; to abandon light, fun and joy at the moment when you likely need them the most. And you are attempting to sort out your career, your finances, your personal life and your waistline all at the same time. No wonder New Year’s resolutions rarely make it past March. It is a miracle they make it to February.  

So, here is my proposal: don’t bother. If you want to lose weight, do it at a time when the environment works with, not against, you. If you want to quit drinking, do it in April (the month is shorter, anyway). Ignore all the nonsense inflicted by an arbitrary Roman calendar, listen to your body and focus on surviving the winter. Eat, drink and be merry. We can deal with the rest in the spring.

[See also: Last January, I let go of goals – and I’ve never been happier]

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