A Series of Complaints: New Year’s Resolutions
Artificial milestones are the enemy of progress
I grew up with three different calendars in my life, the Gregorian being the foremost which governed my day to day activities, when my homework was due and the holidays when I didn’t have to go to school. The other two calendars, the Ethiopian calendar and the Chinese Lunar calendar, made their presence known only at certain times of the year, namely, the holidays when I did have to go to school. These calendars also governed, at times, what I ate, since the Lenten fasting period on the Ethiopian calendar was different from the Gregorian one, and some of the Chinese holidays were accompanied by seasonal treats like mooncakes or sticky rice wrapped in leaves. We shifted between the three calendars, which it made it known early on how arbitrary the tracking of time is, how seemingly rigid yet simultaneously unfounded, a smokescreen layer of rules that governs social life but could easily be blown away by a strong gust of wind.
Since it will soon be the Gregorian year 2020, there has been an onslaught of “end of the decade!!” excitement and brand-related hype. I know that, since calendars are all many of us have known our whole lives and thanks to colonialism the Gregorian one is dominant, it is easier to think about time as linear, invariant, rigid, and Meaningful. It feels less accessible to think of time as a gradient of moments within which we leave behind our past selves, dying every fraction of a second and reborn in the next, governed by the brazen inconsistencies of our environment, of changing seasons and rising suns. It feels impossible not to assign numbers to time, and the current system is admittedly useful for the purpose of synchronizing seven billion people and especially pertinent to capitalism.
Tracking time allows us to tell ourselves a story, to organize life into discrete pieces that we can put together like a puzzle. Celebrations of the end of a decade, then, however arbitrary, are ways we can justify that a 10-year chunk of our life is more special than a 9-year or 11-year period. While I see “2020” as an arbitrarily assigned number, I do not find any fault with the desire to look at a section of your life and tell a story about it — despite the fact that on the Chinese lunar calendar it will soon be the year 4718, and on the Ethiopian calendar it will soon be the year 2013.
New Year’s Resolutions, on the other hand, are a different matter. The problem is that most people have only one New Year, and only one opportunity per year for resolutions. Keeping track of life is important, but a Gregorian year is simply too long for a resolution. A year feels long, it feels, in September, that you still have a lot of time until the end, when your goal should be accomplished. But then October will come, and the holiday decorations will go up, and since that’s the period many Americans decide nothing new can be started and everything is excusable, the year will slip by and you will find yourself in a Sisyphean battle with the arbitrariness of time, committing yet again in January to what should have begun last March.
Winter is a terrible time to decide to start things, particularly exercise and healthy eating, the most cited of New Year’s resolutions. In January, most fresh produce is out of season, and so you find yourself cooking plates of chicken and steaming frozen broccoli, exiting a gym into a cold, 5PM darkness to scrape the snow off of your car, wondering why you decided to punish yourself in an already miserable time of year.
I rarely make yearly goals unless they involve some definitively annual program, like applying to university or becoming pregnant. For all other goals, any number of unforeseen things could occur in a year — job changes, partner changes, car accidents, illness, death, or plague. Instead, I advocate for throwing away calendars and being governed more organically, moved to start things simply because they make sense in your life. I like making exercise goals in the spring, when the warm weather makes it enticing and one is ensured a 3–4 month run of longer, sunnier days. I make financial goals oriented around tax deadlines. I set my electronic calendars to start on Monday rather than Sunday, because Sunday never feels like the start of a new week, of course returning to work after the weekend is what really counts. What I would ideally like to do is abandon the idea of months and track time with a built-in clock: my period, during which time stops and I can decide if I used all my non-period days effectively towards my periodic goals. Above all I leave room for inspiration, starting whatever I have realized is important today or as soon as possible, since no one knows what tomorrow will bring.
Calendars make us complacent, allowing us to tell ourselves fairytales of linearity and extrapolating a peaceful present into the unknown future. To live without a calendar — or to resist its impacts as much as possible — is to recognize the randomness and inconsistency of real life, to be expecting at all times the frisbees of chaos that are flung at your skull by an uncaring universe. When I am accosted by the unexpected, I laugh — not because I am prepared, but because I never pretend that my flat line of routine is a certainty. Instead, I am primed for humanity’s true key traits, more brute than intelligence and planning: adaptability and endurance.
I die every fraction of a second, and I am reborn in the next.