Why we continue to make New Year's resolutions - and inevitably give up on them

It seems to be a function of the modern condition that we try to improve ourselves. Just who are we trying to fool?

Some people have willpower. You can see it holding them up – all can-do and sinewy, it wraps around their bones and fortifies them, like Wolverine's metal bits. They plough through projects and wrestle workloads, all too often unaware that their ability to see something through to the end puts them in a tiny upper percentile of useful human people.

They do very well at this time of year, people like that, because they give up smoking or take up paragliding. And they don't just do it for a day – they manage it. New Year's resolutions aren't for everybody, you know, so consider which camp you're in before you start beating yourself over the head with whatever flimsy pretence of health you're trying to embark upon this January.

I am not like those willpower people. The only resolve currently eddying around my system is the hangover- curing antacid of the same name.

Ever since I can remember, I have been utterly incapable of sticking to any resolution I have ever made. When I was little I once decided to tidy my room – to spring-clean it, if you like – by emptying every single cupboard and drawer on to the floor and putting everything back, only much more tidily. Halfway through, I got bored and simply pushed all the toys, clothes and books under my bed and hoped that my mum wouldn't notice. She did.

My whole existence is still, in many ways, like that bedroom. My life is littered with the rusting hulks of fads co-opted and then forgotten about, the bare bones of things I couldn't be bothered to finish. I push them under the metaphorical bed and cover them with snazzy throws, but nothing hides the fact that I am a relentless self-improver of the very worst kind: the kind that never really improves herself at all.

I make lists that always start with the same instruction: "Do more exercise." I make these lists about once every three months, then fail to implement anything on them. Once, to my eternal shame, I wrote one of these lists in a notebook that, when I leafed through the previous pages, just contained list after list of things I had never got around to doing. A phalanx of failed frontispieces, a life unameliorated, more exercise not done.

After eight months of intensive physio on my broken leg this year, my therapist told me in August that our work was finally finished. "Am I all back to normal?" I asked, excited. "Could I run a marathon if I wanted?"

"Well, Harriet, given that you couldn't be bothered to do most of the exercises I gave you, I hardly think you'll be training for a marathon any time soon, will you?" She looked long-suffering at me and my ilk. But she had a point. Yet still, in my head, there is every chance that I might run a marathon one day.

Sometimes I manage things for a little while. I started swimming again properly this year and kept it up for quite a decent amount of time, although it is now a few months since I last went (obviously). Sometimes I know even as I write them down that my resolutions will never come to fruition. Such as the "Eat more vegetables" exhortation – I'm inwardly snorting and shaking my head by k the time I form the curlicue on the "g". But somehow, the act of writing these things down calms me; it solidifies them in the shape that I want them to be – the fact that this bears no relation to the reality of the situation or to me is immaterial. Writing things down is an act; making lists lets things be.

With these, I am cataloguing chaos all comfortably within my control, whereas in real life, the moment in which I choose chocolate over vegetables (every time) rests solely in the hands of the gods. And the gods appear to prefer a Boost to a banana. (Once I tried to make things easier on myself by making the vegetable rule more specific and less nebulous: "I will eat only bananas before 4pm." I haven't touched one since.)

I know this makes me sound like a character from a Beckett play. But on the surface I'm a fully functioning, responsible adult with organisational prowess and practical capabilities well above those my habits might imply. I meet deadlines (just about), my flat is tidy and my hair is brushed, most of the time. My lack of willpower isn't even born of any real sense of dissatisfaction with my lot, and it doesn't prevent me from doing the important stuff, such as paying my rent, keeping my job, living a full and well-rounded, if not exactly healthy, existence. It's more a sense that I could be doing all of these things as some other, slightly better incarnation of myself.

That's why I've tried, in the past year, hair dye, fake tan, hair extensions, eyelash extensions, dance aerobics, hula-hooping, a personal trainer and Vaser lipo. But it isn't all bodily vanity – oh no! I've also had a go at embroidery, learning Spanish and I nearly joined a choir, which I almost certainly wouldn't have gone to after the initial dreadful session. I alphabetised my books once, and tried to keep important paperwork safe. For a time, my flatmate and I used our grill as a filing cabinet.

I kitted myself out for winter with all the wet-weather cycling gear I'd need, then rode to work once. I promised myself I'd go to loads more talks and debates and general cultural events, and then went to one. I told myself I'd read 50 books this year, by writers such as Nabokov and Philip Roth, and I started listing the ones I got though. The list reads The Fifth Queen by Ford Madox Ford; Game of Thrones books one to five.

It's a modern sickness that afflicts far more people than most of us realise. Certainly, if you're one of the capable can-do sorts, you won't have even begun to imagine that so many of your species devote so much time to trying and failing to be anything other than who they are.

It's more of a female tendency, but that isn't to say men are immune – the fact that Men's Health sells so well is proof of that. There's an ever-growing vein of self-improvement literature that has supposedly generated £60m for publishers in the past five years; in the US, the total market (including videos, seminars and so on) is said to be worth $11bn. Helping us realise our dreams of validation and vigour is lucrative – even more so should the poor saps then fail in their mission and find themselves in the market for another cure-all.

Self-improvement is as much of an addiction as yo-yo dieting, or smoking, because the whole deal is founded on the notion that you are most likely not the type of person who will ever be satisfied with who you are, or what you have. That's not to say it's a bad thing – those who constantly strive to improve may well be a bit dull, but we're not immoral.

It shows you have get-up-and-go. Or something. But there's only so much get-up-and-go one person can have; at some point it turns into sit-down-and-stop. That's why so many of the things offered around this time of year, to help strengthen our resolve and keep us on the straight and narrow, have such a punitive angle.

I once went on a week-long yoga detox, which involved absolutely no food (whizzed-up vegetable drinks only) and two enemas a day. Halfway through, the intense longing for a pork pie actually made me weep but, seeing as there was no way to fall off the wagon (the Goan setting was so rural that there was hardly even a wagon, in fact), I had to stick to the regime. It was miserable, so as soon as the plane landed, I went to McDonald's. I have never felt more guilty or contemptuous of my lack of stamina. But by God, it was a great burger.

So I do understand the people who go on bikini bootcamps or do British Military Fitness in the park on Saturdays. I wouldn't want to be one of them, but I get it. As with so many things in life, unpleasant tasks are much easier to get on with if someone is shouting at you that you have to do them, or they have locked you in an ashram with no food.

Perhaps the main problem with self-improvement among my generation of giver-uppers is the lack of self-motivation. In other words, we have it too good and always have had. We rarely do things we don't like doing; I've never had to pull myself up by my bootstraps. Is it manifesting itself now as insolvable existential guilt, this Sisyphean striving for an eternally elusive end result?

No, far more likely an answer is just that I'm self-obsessed: apart from reading, watching telly and drinking, my main hobby is me.

And I'm not alone. I know I'm not, because I haven't spent £60m on self-help books all by myself. And because every so often I see people on the Tube reading How to Get Rich Quick and making notes, or How to Date Someone Really Fit and then checking their reflection in the carriage window. Not everyone is a millionaire or going out with a model, so other people must fail too.

We're simply not used to things that aren't a quick fix. Hate housework? Get a cleaner. Can't be bothered to read a book? Wikipedia. There are very few chores, per se, that actually exist any more – just imagine what medieval peasants would think if they saw us on our bikini bootcamps. They'd be completely befuddled. They'd think we were the village idiots, not them.

But that's how it stands. We invent chores for ourselves, we make ourselves jump hurdles – and some of us manage, some of us don't. We opt for things that we think will make us better people. Then we realise it takes quite a lot of effort to be a better person. We fail, we chastise ourselves, we loathe ourselves, we try again. It's a Hegelian battle of wills between what you want and what you think you should want.

I've tried being a self-starter. At university, during the hellish revision term before my finals, I decided to embark on a running career to further improve my mens sana. I got all trogged up in the kit then went out for my run at precisely the time the pubs in the middle of town were emptying. I ran about 200 yards, terrified that somebody cool might see me in my PE kit, then I turned around and went back to watching telly. In my PE kit.

That incident of humiliating failure I don't count as strictly my fault. The intention was at least there. Ditto with the embroidery – I bought a "how to" guide and everything, but then I was too busy doing other stuff to try it. I even booked and paid for the dance aerobics – the problem was that I went out the night before the class, had loads more fun than I was expecting to and took the executive decision not to go the next day.

And actually, I am happier for that decision. I am happier doing things other than embroidery – not to knock it, but I don't see the point in doing things that one isn't passionate about. I am passionate about seeing the people I love and laughing with them, and that's what I spend most of my time doing.

So this year my resolution was simply to do things that would make my life better, and I'm not convinced that learning a new craft or taking dance lessons would. I try to improve myself periodically but I never expect anything from it. It's a diversion, a stab in the dark at finding a hobby.

In fact, perennial self-improvement is a hobby in itself. And it takes up an awful lot of time, you know.

Doomed to failure: Harriet's personal history of fizzled enterprises

Tidying my room

Got bored, pushed toys and clothes under the bed

Running a marathon

Got as far as asking my physiotherapist whether it might be possible

Eating more Fruit

The chocolate looked more inviting

Cycling in Winter

Bought all the gear. Did it once

Detoxing

Made it through week in an ashram; once off plane, skedaddled to McDonald's

Running

Made it 200 yards down the road, returned to TV

News
scienceExcitement from alien hunters at 'evidence' of extraterrestrial life
Life and Style
Customers can get their caffeine fix on the move
food + drink
News
newsRyan Crighton goes in search of the capo dei capi
Extras
indybest

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Arts and Entertainment
Actors front row from left, Jared Leto, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Ellen DeGeneres, Bradley Cooper, Peter Nyongío Jr., and, second row, from left, Channing Tatum, Julia Roberts, Kevin Spacey, Brad Pitt, Lupita Nyongío and Angelina Jolie as they pose for a
film
Sport
sport
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
Sport
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
Voices
A meteor streaks across the sky during the Perseid Meteor Shower at a wind farm near Bogdanci, south of Skopje, Macedonia, in the early hours of 13 August
voicesHagel and Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise, says Robert Fisk
News
peopleEnglishman managed quintessential Hollywood restaurant Chasen's
Life and Style
food + drinkHarrods launches gourmet food qualification for staff
Arts and Entertainment
Michael Flatley prepares to bid farewell to the West End stage
danceMichael Flatley hits West End for last time alongside Team GB World champion Alice Upcott
Life and Style
Horst P Horst mid-fashion shoot in New York, 1949
fashionFar-reaching retrospective to celebrate Horst P Horst's six decades of creativity
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
i100
Life and Style
Black Ivory Coffee is made using beans plucked from elephants' waste after ingested by the animals
food + drinkFirm says it has created the "rarest" coffee in the world
Life and Style
news

As Voltaire once said, “Ice cream is exquisite. What a pity it isn’t illegal”

Life and Style
food + drinkThese simple recipes will have you refreshed within minutes
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Market Administrator (1st line Support, Bloomberg, Broker)

    Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Market Administrator (1st line Support, Trade Fl...

    Service Desk Analyst (Windows, Active Directory, ITIL, Reuter)

    £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst (Windows, Active Dire...

    Data Support Analyst (Linux, Solaris, Windows Server, Reuters)

    Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Data Support Analyst (Linux, Solaris, Windows Se...

    Helpdesk Support Engineer (Windows, MS Office, Exchange)

    Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Helpdesk Support Engineer (Windows, MS Office, E...

    Day In a Page

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

    What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

    Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

    Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

    Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

    Florence Knight's perfect picnic

    Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
    Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

    Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

    The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
    Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

    Mark Hix's summery soups

    Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
    Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

    Tim Sherwood column

    I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition