New semester

I moved back into school today to start the next semester. A new semester has always had more of a “New Year” feeling than actual New Years, since school provides a ready-made change of scenery and lifestyle.

[image from http://uuspringfieldvt.org/]
[image from http://uuspringfieldvt.org/%5D
That said, I try not to treat “resolutions” like “revolutions.” Often, this time of year–especially the first week or two at the start–gets annoying. Everyone has a hundred hopes, impossible plans, and vague outlines, all aimed at turning them into a new person. I respect the hope and spirit that goes into this, but as with many things, the hope outshoots the reality. Would-be gym-goers, dieters, meditators, and volunteers slump back into their old habits, like a well-worn couch, and lose momentum until “next year.”

It’s happened to me a dozen times. To people I know. To people I don’t know, but see peppering the gym this time of year, then slipping away like a trial product that never goes big. According to a recent study by the University of Scranton, used by Time and Forbes, only about 8% of those who try a resolution say they usually make it.

Other research has different numbers, but the conclusion seems pretty clear: resolutions don’t come easily.

One thing that may hamper our ability to reach our goals is an inherent limitation to self control. Recent research seems to indicate that we can only use so much self control before we succumb to temptation. Or, at the very least, we get more likely to succumb. That pizza, ice cream, and beer hits us much harder after a long day at work.

Sometimes we even rationalize it, saying “Well, I worked hard today and kept up my diet, so I deserve a little something.” The psychologist Kelly McGonigal, who studies willpower, critiques this particular tactic that she calls “moral licensing” in an interesting video.

Moreover, moral licensing and limited self control aren’t the only things that impede resolutions. The stubborn resilience of bad habits, our inability to visualize future selves, competing priorities, guilt-saturated procrastination, and more set strong roadblocks between us and progress.

In this way, a resolution cannot be a revolution. Any significant change takes time. It takes effort. It takes failure and fidelity despite that failure, a daily fidelity that keeps a clear, consistent goal in mind. It may not give us that “feel-good” feeling, but we do it anyway because we truly “resolve” ourselves to do it.

Numerous practical tips exist to help people reach such resolutions. Keeping it simple, focused, tangible, and social is the most basic. In other words, trying to get up an hour early and go the gym five days a week, after not working out at all, or simply trying to “work out more” probable won’t work. Instead, one could work out two or three days per week with a reliable workout buddy at reasonable time.

The latter is much more likely.

Studying and prepping for a resolution also strengthens its chance of success. Working out, dieting, meditation, reducing coffee consumption–these are all complex topics saturated with pitfalls, information, and misinformation. Knowing what we’re getting into makes the resolution a clear goal, not a nebulous hope.

Another, more nuanced perspective may come from philosophy. Nicholas Rescher (1928-), a philosopher of contemporary pragmatism, notes that a lost cause is often the best sort, since we are always striving to attain it. An “ideal” stands beyond reality. We can never reach it. But it can push or inspire us to try to reach it, and in doing so, it directs our actions–hopefully, for the better.

Ideals are the “cliché” stars that elementary school posters tell us to reach for, although such posters don’t have the sobering truth that most of those stars are impossible to reach.

Nicholas Rescher [image from University of Pittsburgh]
Nicholas Rescher [image from University of Pittsburgh]
In a way, such a view is a bit like Albert Camus’ notion of absurdity: most moral, progressive, good things are lost causes. Our condition limits us, and we get frustrated because we have the ability to dream beyond that condition. This is part of the reason life can feel “absurd.” Much earlier in time, Immanuel Kant made a similar distinction between the “world as it is” (the empirical reality of experience) and the “world as it ought to be” (our rational ideal). For him, the two shall never meet.

Aware of this, however, we can see failure for what it is: the reality that was always there. And when it strikes, we can get back up and start striving for our ideal again. Even if we never reach that New Year’s goal, we hopefully still found improvement in other ways, which is a victory in itself.

So from one striving, hoping, failing human to another, good luck.

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3 thoughts on “New semester

  1. Good luck to you in ’14, and while as you say, hope often outshoots reality, I think the last thought you had makes it all worthwhile: “Even if we never reach that New Year’s goal, we hopefully still found improvement in other ways, which is a victory in itself.”

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