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dear diary, this time i really mean it ...

So this year you'll give up drinking, swim every day and become fluent in French and Japanese. Yeah, and John Major will marry a Spice Girl, says Hester Lacey
This year I'm not making any New Year's resolutions. This is because I have a significant birthday coming up in 1997, so I am postponing perfection until June. After all, by the age of 30, anyone who isn't a totally hopeless human being ought to have given up smoking, worked out that drinking simply isn't worth the hangovers, reached their target weight and stayed there, and become conversationally fluent in at least a few of the more useful and widely spoken European languages. This pitiful list of improvements, however, is the one I've been working on for at least a decade. Up to now, success has been limited: I can get by in French.

The only crumb of comfort is that I am not alone. "I found a load of old diaries when I moved house," confessed one 30-something friend. "It was really sad. They dated right back to my early teens, and I'd filled them all in up to about the second week in January. They all started off the same way: this year I will give up smoking, stop drinking, go swimming three times a week ... I still make the same ones each year, but I don't depress myself by writing them down. You won't achieve any of yours by your birthday, you might as well forget it," she added encouragingly.

"I've tried everything," admitted another friend. "One year, I decided to start with one thing to get through in January, add another in February, another in March, a kind of gradual move towards becoming the perfect human being, in little steps I thought I could handle. I got as far as March, then it became like juggling - I just couldn't keep all the balls in the air."

This kind of cheating is widespread; anything to make the whole process less painful. "I do mine on a kind of instalment plan," explained one woman still young enough to retain a crazy optimism that there must be a way to make it easy. "I make monthly resolutions, with an option to renew on the last day of the month. That way, I don't feel too hemmed in by them. Knowing you only have to go a month jogging half a mile every day before breakfast, or eating 30 grammes of fibre a day, or not having sugar in your tea, makes it seem much more manageable." And does it work? "I'm sure I've got at least as far as March or April in the past."

"What I can't understand," wailed a passing stranger, overhearing the above, "is why the things I want to do seem so simple in theory and so hard in practice. I mean, other people manage to go to the gym regularly - I've seen them. And other people don't feel the need to eat three Mars bars a day. It's just a question of packing a sports bag and getting on with it, or not buying them, unwrapping them and putting them in my mouth, so why can't I do it?"

"I stick to practical resolutions - I never make any to do with being a better person," observed a work colleague who can only be described as a smug swine.

Aric Sigman, consultant psychologist, views this angst-fest with a jaundiced eye. "Over the last 10 or 15 years there has been a huge increase in this trend for self-improvement. It has become almost a psychological imperative to get involved in personal development and growth. Declaring New Year's resolutions has become a much stricter ritual; where people used to content themselves with one, they now make several, and make a great fuss about them."

Such ritual breast-beating, he believes, is much overstated. "One aspect of this `going for it', as the Americans term it, is a lot of shouting about betterment. People used to be encouraged to hide their light under a bushel; it was considered very non-U to brag. Nowadays, the middle classes are going for performance living; they boast about going to the gym or running. You hear these conversations all the time. `How many times have you been to step class this week? Was it the advanced or the intermediate or the wimp class?' New Year's resolutions are part of this whole new fashion. The idea of making resolutions has been around for God knows how long, but the formula has changed."

So are you saying I needn't give up smoking? "No. There are good reasons to give up smoking. Where people come unstuck is by choosing things that are incompatible with their identity. People who resolve to make profound changes in the way they conduct their personal relationships, or their jobs will fail - resolutions that don't come down to a simple succeed or fail choice."

But hang on a minute. Failing at succeed/fail choices is still well within the bounds of possibility; witness all those old chestnuts like dieting and exercise. "Our society has encouraged the idea of instant gratification," explains Sigman. "People expect to be thin and fit straight away. Changing eating or exercise habits is a long-term and difficult process. Society has to grow up; what's needed are old-fashioned notions like forbearance, the deferral of pleasure - all very uncool, I know."

So: scrap all those guilty lists. The advice on the table is to move the goal posts a little. "Choose something you can succeed at," says Sig- man. "Don't go in for the idea that self-improvement is always possible. Choose areas you're naturally inclined to improve in anyway."

A reassuring idea. Particularly as the unlikely spectacle of success in wildly over-ambitious New Year's self-improvement programmes is one that strikes fear and despondency into the hearts of those around you. "Do you remember Hamish? He gave up smoking on New Year's Day last year and he's never smoked since. And now he runs every day!" breathed one failed resolver, in tones of awe tinged with hatred. "I can't bear it. Before, I liked him because I always thought `However unfit I am, I'll never be as unfit as Hamish.' Now he just scares me."