On New Year's Resolution

As Ethiopia sees off the ‘Old’ and welcomes the ‘New Year’, it may be common among many to plan to change their lives in one way or another. I sometimes wonder if there is such a thing as ‘old’ or ‘new’ a time slot, i.e. what is essentially ‘new’ in a New Year? What makes Pagume 5 (or 6) an old day and Meskerem 1 a new one, apart from how we experience both days? Please do not get me wrong. I recognize that there will be religious as well as traditional explanations as to why such a designation has been given and upheld.

My point is that one should look for what is new inside of them. It is only when I choose to change certain habits, thought patterns and attitudes that I can expect new outcomes, new ideas and new perceptions. That way, one may see the difference between the days, the weeks, months and years.

Having argued that new things come from within as a ‘New Year’ may not essentially and inherently be as new, it follows that individuals could actually begin their resolutions on any day of the year. There is no particular reason that justifies waiting for Meskerem 1 to start to change one’s behavior. For some reason, however, people find it easier to pledge and plan to change their lives every time they welcome a ‘New Year’.

Roughly speaking, the things one wants to change, as part of their New Year resolution, fall under one of two types. One, there are things one does but wants to stop doing. Many young men may want to take their last sip of alcohol at the last minute of the old year. Promises to quit smoking or any other bad habit that has grown into addiction are the most common in the list of New Year resolutions.

The second category has to do with things that one has not been able to do, due to sheer laziness and habitual procrastination, but they really want to. Starting a new business, getting a soul mate, pursuing the next degree, visiting one’s dream place, writing a book are but some of the things under this category. Obviously, the list of specific items differs among individuals.

Economics, as a science that tries to understand decision-making, has some important lessons to offer as to how one may stick to their New Year resolutions. Empirical studies on the issue show that most resolutions end in smoke, mainly because individuals lack self-control. Behavioral economics, along with and sometimes borrowing from psychology, recognizes that homo sapiens, unlike the homo economicus in mainstream economics textbooks, make decisions based not only on pecuniary consequences of their decisions but also on behavioral, social and moral considerations. As such, one may easily break one’s ‘no alcohol, no chat, no tobacco’ resolution when they reunite with a pushy-old-friend, or get a cue that they cannot resist.

The tricks one may use to stick to one’s dearest promises depend on which of the aforementioned categories one’s particular plan belongs to. For habits, the lessons from neurology and psychology suggest that one cannot do away with the strong cravings they have developed. Smokers cannot stop the temptation. One who used to chew khat may keep yawning when the clock hits 3 pm, or whatever time they used to regularly sit with that demon. The boredom, headache, unease, nausea, and confusion which precede an episode of chewing, drinking and smoking are drives hard to resist, and difficult to cure right away.

No matter how many times one might have sworn that they would stick to the resolution, there are strong physiological reasons that they will fall back to their old habit. There is one simple trick though. As the cravings and temptations cannot be avoided, scholars recommend that one uses those feelings to redirect their behavior to another habit, this time a good one. That is, the old habit can be effectively replaced with a new one. The sequence of craving, action and then good feeling (reward) form a chain in the old bad habit. The idea is that this same sequence should be maintained except for the middle, where one may, for example, go to the gym the moment one feels a rush of craving for something.

There are several potential tricks, which may help one stick to resolutions in the second category as well. A notable one from, once again, behavioral economics is to try to tie the pledges to monetary (dis)incentives. If writing a book is one of my New Year resolutions but I know that I am prone to notorious procrastination, I can use this trick. I tell one of my closest and most serious friends about my plan. I may, for the sake of tractability and regularity, breakdown the job into chunks such as a complete outline in the first month, an exhaustive list of readings in the second and so on.

On the incentive side, the challenge arises because the benefits of getting a book out is long-term while the toil, sleeplessness and back pain are immediate. If I do not write it this year, the cost is the forgone long-term benefit, which I do not feel directly. I should then change the stakes. I may give my friend a copy of my plan, a lump sum of money, usually and obviously an amount large enough to make me feel bad if I lose it, and a signed copy of an agreement. The agreement should state that my friend gives me back the money only if and when I deliver what I have put in my plan. If I fail, the money must be given to, for example, Macedonia or any other charity organization. Even stronger an incentive would be to give the money, in case of failure, to an organization that you do not like! It is also advised, however, one should not bite more than they can chew, which is to say plans should not tyrannize one.

An important remark worth noting is that the consequence of broken promises is not limited to the benefits that one would have enjoyed had the goals been achieved. Failure to ‘walk one’s talk’ may lead to a distrust in oneself and bad self-image. When someone lies to me, the worst penalty would be that I cannot believe them when they tell the truth. When one fails to deliver to one’s very self on important New Year resolutions, the same effect will creep in.
The solution is to, first of all, set realistic and attainable goals. Second, once promises are told to the innocent self, then using some of the tricks mentioned earlier may take one a long way in achieving them and feeling the positive feedback loop that augments the whole process of setting goals and putting them down to earth.

I believe that, every time a brand New Year comes, looking for ‘new’ things one can do inside oneself and one’s own life makes more sense than expecting something divine to happen while we sit on one’s age-old habits and obsolete thoughts.
Happy Ethiopian New Year and Happy New Journey!

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On New Year’s Resolution