Irresolute beginnings …

So it’s New Year again and most of us are at the point of determining which New Year Resolutions we will attempt not to break by Epiphany, or, as happens on occasion, sooner. And like the rest, I shall be thinking up impossible and impracticable “targets” with which to propel myself, angst-ridden yet driven, into 2011. “Angst-ridden” because of the pre-event guilt of knowing that one’s track record in NYRs is poor enough to make it pound to a penny that every one of the buggers will have come crashing down before February, and “driven” because we human beings are still naive enough to think that the only thing that will come crashing down this year is one’s poor track record in NYRs. In fact, I should imagine that for most of us except the anal ones who wrote it all down (yes, guilty as charged), we can’t actually remember what our NYRs were at the beginning of 2010, and the majority of us will have signally failed to achieve them.

Ah well. Perhaps in that case I may have the satisfaction of entering 2011 as a mould-breaker, having actually achieved not just one but two of ‘em. I did cycle 5000 miles in 2010 and I did lose a stone in weight. Pity the second of those did not also include the one which is now so much an annual occurrence it has almost become a mantra re not eating chocolate. By Twelfth Night this has usually dumbed down to not eating as much chocolate, and by Easter it has disappeared entirely, along with its sister NYR of not yielding to temptation.

But where did the custom of hatching Herculean feats that one will subsequently break come from and why is it seemingly impossible to stick to our well-intentioned resolutions? It is of an uncertain origin, appearing not to have its roots in any particular faith, creed or other belief system but rather being just something that seems a natural part of seeing out the old and ushering in the new. The issue of why we don’t succeed (and it appears 88% of our annual promises fall into that category) has been the subject of some recent research and it appears to be all to do with how our brains cope with the whole resolutions thing. We all joke about habits being easy to make and difficult to shake, and this appears to be because the part of our brain responsible for willpower – the prefrontal cortex – has enough to get on with in its normal processes of abstract problem solving and handling our short-term memory, without asking it to play the lead role in ridding ourselves over a prolonged period of time of the compulsion to eat an entire box of chocolate fingers at one go. In fact, the annual ritual of concocting a bag full of resolutions, no matter how well-intentioned and noble – is probably the worst possible way of setting goals as the brain goes into a form of resolution meltdown resulting in the inevitable failure of most if not all of our genuine self-amelioration attempts. And then of course the angst really kicks in and the self-deprecation begins.

According to the researchers, the best way of achieving your NYRs is not to set up a jumble of ill-constructed and vague sentiments like “I will lose weight” but to establish specific targets or goals spread out over a longer time frame. This of course has to be accompanied by the game plan for achieving them. So, now that I have stopped indulging in all that back-patting re my own 2010 NYR achievements, perhaps it’s right to analyse why this time around I succeeded in the face of many monumental failures in the past. I believe it was because I set myself goals that I knew would take the entire year to realise and set the game plan to take that into account. It factored in the potential for knocks along the way such as occurred in May with an unexpected illness. It was also considerably helped by the simple fact that the 5000 mile target and the increased level of cycling activity it entailed, by its very nature meant a significant calorific output which led to a large part of the weight loss required to meet the second NYR. I’d like to think this was a deliberate ploy on my part but honesty forbids me from doing so, thereby, albeit entirely incidentally, fulfilling another NYR about not telling so many fibs!

The research also shows that many of us, especially women, benefit from being supported in our aspirations by friends. I would have to say this was true of my own situation, and I would like to extend a lot of thanks to those who assisted me by means of inspiration (the original one and the ongoing), encouragement and even by the use of reverse psychology – this latter from one in particular who has not known me for any length of time but who has grasped that I am contrary enough to do something just to prove others wrong.

And so to next year – well this year actually. I am going on the same basis that more specific goals are required and have set myself some target events (one sportive or distance event a month from April to October) and a training plan to help me develop the fitness to achieve it. Weight loss is in-built rather than a resolution on its own. There is a vague no chocolate promise, complete with my “diversionary tactic” as mentioned in the research on standby. Here’s hoping.

Pre-frontal cortex – it’s all up to you now. Pass the chocolate fingers will you.

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