For most people, 1 January represents a time of potential change and renewal. New Year's resolutions make the promise of a new you – a non-smoking you, a thin you, a good you, a sober you.
The promise is a lie. One statistic puts the number of failed resolutions at 92 per cent. I would say that was optimistic. But we keep on trying, because we can't think of what else to do in order to change ourselves. And clearly, we're not good enough as we are.
It's a real double bind. If willpower doesn't work, what does? I've tried to work out the answer to that question for many years – since like everyone else I subscribe to the fantasy of a "better me" – and finally came up with an answer. Stop trying.
This is not the same as saying "give up". It's simply about approaching the problem from a different angle. "Trying" is a concept that is intimately tied up with the idea of "willpower", and that idea of willpower is so deeply entrenched in our consciousness, that we can't see anymore that it's just an idea – not a concrete reality.
We have had the principle of willed action drummed into us since birth via Christianity or Platonic thought. The latter insists that the Will must control the wild horses of our passions. The Christian part of the equation gives this a moral dimension – we must constantly struggle with ourselves, the "good" part of us always wrestling with the "bad" part.
These are our puritan and classical roots and we have paid the price for them in a constant merry-go-round of binge and purge. This mindset applies to all fields of endeavour, but weight loss is the best example of the distortion that this way of thinking produces.
We – ie our "good" selves – start out on 1 January determined to purge the "bad" – ie greedy/fat parts of ourselves – by means of this thing called willpower. However, shortly after the euphoria of making the decision to generate a new self we are hit with a double whammy. First, we find ourselves thinking about food all the time, since consciously interfering with what should be a natural, automatic process – eating – always results in a kind of obsession. Second, we start to feel hungry, which focuses our mind on food even more.
As we diet, thoughts of food dominate our mind in a way they never did when we weren't dieting (just as the heavy drinker or smoker, as they try to give up, thinks about booze or fags obsessively). Pushed further by our physical cravings, eventually we crack. Or we finish the diet, then relax and get fat all over again. We eat the cream cake, we smoke the Marlboro, we drink the whisky.
Eating the cream cake is wicked (hence the clever advertising slogan, "Naughty – but nice", which offers us permission to be bad). Now we have sinned, and there is no atonement. This isn't a Catholic country after all. Our purge has failed. So we now might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb, and we throw ourselves back into eating/smoking/drinking with a self-hating abandonment. We are impure, and nothing is any good. And so it goes, until we hate ourselves so much that we purge again. Then the whole sorry cycle starts once more.
The most extreme example of the self-defeating nature of willpower is anorexia. The anorectic furiously determines to limit strictly their eating. They do this in order to "gain control" over their body. They do not see that by gaining control over their body, they are losing control over themselves, because their compulsion is utterly un-free.
This is their uncomfortable paradox – they believe they are maximising their willpower where in fact they are losing their freedom entirely in the realms of addiction and compulsion. That fact that they don't see this – that they see themselves as strong – is why anorexia is so difficult to defeat, and it is at the heart of what is wrong with appeals to willpower.
This beat-ourselves-up-with-a-stick principle we have more or less abandoned in rearing our children. We no longer hit them in order to get them to do something, or try to tarnish them with a sense of shame. Instead we encourage them, affirm them and gently reassure them. However, we do not seem to have adopted the idea of using this technique on ourselves. We still believe in the psychological inner stick beating down on our so-called "bad self" in response to any transgression.
So how can we be a new person, a better person? We can't – at least, not by means of willpower. Personally, I rather suspect that I'm much the same slob I was when I was a teenager. But any changes I have made in my life, I am pretty sure, have not come about as a result of whacking my "bad self" on the head with the stick of my willpower.
Eastern ways of thinking can provide a few clues to a better way. Buddhists and Taoists don't think of the self in the way that we do. Famously, they don't believe in the ego, which means that they also don't believe in willpower. Taoism is also called the Watercourse Way – which means that, like water, you take the path of least resistance. In their way of thought, trying to use the will is rather like straining on your seatbelt to help elevate a plane as it takes off. It is a pointless muscular illusion.
I believe that there comes a moment when eating less, or drinking less is the right thing for you to do at the right time. You naturally feel it and when you do, you go with the grain of how you feel and quite naturally stop eating or drinking so much. But to push against yourself too violently is self-defeating. Like most people, I would be happy to lose half a stone or so. Once upon a time, I would have gone on a diet. The trouble is that they never work, for all the reasons outlined above.
However, recently I have been attempting something different – a way of eating I dreamed up which, I suppose, is vaguely based on Zen principles – or more accurately, Kaizen, a Japanese management technique that emphasises very small incremental change over a long period. It substitutes patience for willpower.
With this in mind, I have very slowly over time been altering minor parts of my eating and drinking habits. In the first week or two I tried not drinking wine on weekdays. That was fine. Later, it occurred to me that I wasn't bothered much about puddings during the day. So I stopped eating them and I didn't miss them. A little later, I decided that since I have a very early lunch, I stopped having breakfast during the week. That was fine, too.
This isn't a system, or a diet – it's a very gradual way of changing ways of behaving, naturally, as and when they occur to me. Sometimes I don't stick with the plan, but I don't let it bother me, because I don't see it as a "plan", just a rough guideline.
As the weeks wear on, I keep thinking of new, very small ways of improving my diet. And I think that it's probably working. As it is part of the philosophy not to measure improvements – Zen thinking emphasises that the Western world's obsession with quantifying everything produces a dysfunctional mindset – I have, after 20 years of weighing myself weekly, got rid of my bathroom scales. So I don't really know whether I'm lighter or not. But recently several people have said that I'm looking thinner. If it's true, it's been painless, and because it's been painless, it's been achievable. And even if it's not true, it doesn't much matter, because I feel that it is true – and so I feel good about myself.
These, I think, are good principles to apply when trying out any New Year's resolution. First, don't try too hard. Trying only leads to failure. Second, don't try and change anything about yourself that you're not ready for. You should go with the grain of things. And last, if you are going to change something about yourself, do it very slowly and be very easy on yourself. Then you might actually have a chance of success.
So take it easy in 2010 and have a relaxed New Year. And if you make one resolution, make it the one I made many years ago – to never make one ever again. It's the only resolution I have ever managed to stick to, and it's unquestionably the best.