Cyclical progression: Why failed New Year’s resolutions are worth the effort

Two weeks in, are the New Year’s resolutions already starting to falter, or even fall by the wayside? We start every year by thinking we can instantly change everything imperfect about our lives in one fell swoop, even though every year we are proved wrong. All those best intentions rarely result in anything lasting, yet we still go through the same motions, year in and year out.

We earnestly quit drinking or smoking in the hungover fug of New Year’s Day, only to take it up again so that we’ll have something to give up for Lent, and then find ourselves swearing off it again come next New Year. We join the gym full of determination in January, but by mid-Februaury, we’ve given up going. We half-arsedly start again to get in shape for summer, then forget about it until we are convincing ourselves on 31 December that next year, it will be a different story. So why bother? Is there anything to be gained by this annual cycle of hope and regret?

 We stand a better chance of getting somewhere with small steps rather than giant leaps

Fresh starts

I began this blog with some thoughts on “rebeginnings” – this need to start again when it seems that where we are going is not where we want to be. New Year’s Day is tailor-made for rebeginnings. Each year I look back and take stock of where I am, and each year I’m dismayed to find I haven’t come very far. Promises made and promises broken, best intentions gone awry. This blog, for example, has not been updated for four months, and not for want of trying. The dashboard is full of entries I have started but not finished, ideas that petered out before I developed them, or had become outdated by the time I did. So I start again.

Fresh starts can feel like scratching out what went before, like crumpling up the badly written words and throwing them in the bin, like trying to put the failures of past efforts behind us. It’s the same with New Year resolutions – a new beginning without looking back. But it makes it all the more galling when once again it doesn’t come to much. We end up feeling like we’ve gotten nowhere, and wasted our time in getting there.

New-Year_Resolutions_listWhat I’ve been thinking, though, is that to make a fresh start work, we need to make little advances on those past efforts – even if they failed – rather than trying to start from scratch once again. Maybe we stand a better chance of getting somewhere with small steps rather than giant leaps. Recurring markers like New Year’s Day give us an opportunity not so much to begin again, but to reassess our progress.

Straight lines and cycles

In his Status Anxiety, Alain de Botton reflects on our perspective on the human journey was changed by the Industrial Revolution’s reification of material progress as an end in itself.

“A host of technological inventions transformed everyday life – and helped to alter mental horizons too: the old cyclical view of the world, where one expected next year to be much like (and as bad as) the last, gave way to a view that mankind could progress yearly towards perfection.”

These days, it seems we tend to view life as a linear path, progressing from birth to death, with gradual growth and development. We manage our daily lives, our business and careers in much the same way, advancing – we hope – towards greater health, wealth and happiness. It is an understandable perspective, because we are evolutionary beings, products of a world that has gradually evolved from simplicity to complexity. We view progress and evolution as a straight line of improvement. The triumphant release of a new iPhone is only the first stage in the development of the next, better one. Our predominant socioeconomic system is based on the assumption that perpetual unidirectional growth is the only goal. Anything other than growth, be it stagnation or “negative” growth, is anathema. But like Achilles chasing the tortoise, that perfection towards which we are supposedly progressing remains as eternally distant as the horizon. Because, in thinking about our life’s journey in that manner, we’ve lost sight of a fundamental point.

We are also cyclical beings. We manage and regulate our lives by calendars and seasons that recur just as much as they appear to start and finish. Those seasons are shaped for us by the nature of the world around us. Our planet rotates on its axis and returns to the starting point each new day, at the same time as it revolves around the sun and comes back to where it started to begin another year. Life on earth too developed through cycles of growth and extinction and rebirth and growth again, and is no doubt continuing in that same fashion.

Cyclical progression

Life spirals, coming back not to the same point, but to where we can see and reassess where we have come from.

As 2012 petered out, some thought that we weren’t going to make it to 2013 – or even to Christmas. But the apocalypse supposedly prophesied by the ancient Mayans for 21 December failed to materialise. Those who feared it had believed that it the end of the Mayan calendar meant the end of time. Instead, it was simply the end of a cycle by which the Mayans measured their time. That fear could be seen as a confusion between our modern view of progression towards an endpoint and the ancient view of the cycles of life, the universe and everything.

This confusion may have arisen because the linear and the cyclical view are linked. Rather than a straight line from protozoa to fish to mudskipper to ape to us, life has evolved in waves and stages. But through each of the cycles of growth and extinction, life on earth has moved on, developed and evolved a little more.  The earth might return to the same position on its axis each day, but each day it is a little further on in its revolution around the sun. It is not a straight line, but neither is it is a closed circuit. It is a combination of the two – cyclical progression.

Life spirals, coming back not to the same point, but to where we can see and reassess where we have come from, and from there direct our forward movement. So, rather than casting away our failures and our missteps, we should learn from them. This is nothing new, but perhaps it is worth keeping in mind when we are beating ourselves up for failing to keep those New Year’s resolutions. Instead of seeing them as a whole new trajectory, we should recognise their use as rather a gradual advancement, directed by the small changes in our cycle. If we aim not for a sea change in everything we do, but little changes along the way, maybe next year we will have gotten somewhere.


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