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Already Broke Your New Year's Resolution? Excellent!

Why you should not feel bad if you break your New Year's resolution.

It's that time of the year. Six days in, with an actual working week looming, some of the New Year's resolutions just go out of the window. Should you feel cut up about this? Disappointed in yourself? Self-loathing? Au contraire. You should be happy that you've done it finally.

The whole idea of New Year's resolutions is just plainly harmful. Here is the only helpful New Year's resolution I have seen. Virginia Woolf, at the very height of her career, wrote the following New Year's resolution in her diary:

"January 2, 1931: Here are my resolutions for the next 3 months; the next lap of the year. To have none. Not to be tied. To be free & kindly with myself."

You might say, why should I take self-help advice from Virginia Woolf. She was a great writer and the mother of 20th century modernist novel, but she was struggling with bipolar disorder much of her life and just a decade after writing these lines, she took her own life. This may be so, but psychological research in the 21st century is on Woolf's side.

We now know that a conscious desire to have better self-control actually makes us have less self-control. So if we really want to resist temptations, we become worse at resisting temptations. And New Year's resolutions are conscious desires to have better self-control with bells on. So if you want to achieve something in the new year, the worst way to do so is by making a New Year's resolution. We also know that self-control in subjects with low socio-economic status leads to a variety of physiological harms, including epigenetic ageing.

And what happens when New Year's resolutions fail? Because they tend to fail, some earlier than others. How do we cope with that? It seems that there are two options. First, you could just be thoroughly disappointed in yourself, and this could easily turn to self-hatred. Not a very good option. Second, you try to rationalise your failure away. You could say to yourself that it was an unreasonable resolution anyway, which never stood a chance. So you did nothing wrong. Only true masters of self-deception can pull this move off.

My point is that we are not forced to choose between these two bad options. In fact, on the basis of what we know about the human mind, you should not feel bad about breaking your New Year's resolution at all. No need to either be disappointed in yourself or try to hide the blatant contradiction between what you thought on January 1st and what you think now. You could just follow Virginia Woolf's advice and be free and kindly to yourself!

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