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"New year new me": resolutions, self-improvement and busy culture. More harm than good?

“New year, new me” – it’s almost as if we’ve set up an annual meeting with ourselves at midnight on 1st January to remind ourselves to seek control in our daily lives. Since we can’t see our futures, we desperately attempt to shape them. Uncertainties around finances, health, relationships, friendships and career mean we write an incessant list of how we will improve each and every aspect of our lives: “Eat less takeaways”, “quit smoking”, “get a new job”, “start a business”, “give up coffee”, “go on more dates” – the list goes on. We set up a mosaic of different sized goals, each with the admirable intention of optimising and improving our lives.

This is the positive intention around resolutions and to-do’s: they provide a reflective space for optimism in a world of endless opportunities and anxieties. There’s no better feeling than saying goodbye to the negative aspects of your past and setting new resolutions to achieve success, both personally and professionally. Seeing all the opportunities in front of us is exciting but overwhelming in equal measure. New year’s resolutions therefore provide a comfort that we can improve our lives if we simply compile resolutions. In our attempt to control our futures, we strategize, set long-term objectives and curate regular to-do lists with the positive intent to meet a life well lived.

But under this pressure cooker of obsessive self-improvement which characterises modern life, the aim is to achieve our goals in the most efficient way possible and achieve as much as we can in the shortest amount of time, as if we’re on a lifeline and the doctor’s threatening to take away the life support. Putting mental pressure on ourselves to achieve this today and that by tomorrow, we ramp through our to-do’s at supersonic speed until we’re swarming around in an out of body experience, completely disconnected from our own present thoughts. Then when we do eventually grab the inhaler and take some time to relax, we welcome in a new type of pressure on ourselves. At this point, we start telling ourselves we’re wasting time, linking our lack of activity with lack of success. Even in a pandemic where we’ve been given extra hours in our day, we have created bigger expectations with many people claiming they feel even more busy than before. So, why are we doing this to ourselves?

Because in modern culture, busyness is glorified. That old saying that permeates our lives “time is money” – yep, we live by it. This obsession with productivity has been driven by the economic and political order which fuels a state of constant activity in order to expand markets, which has creeped into every aspect of our lives day in and day out. The culture of busyness tells us that being productive is critical, even when it becomes unenjoyable. The classic “Ugh, I’ve just been sooo busy!” often creeps up in modern daily conversations, as some sort of affirmation for self-validation. We have become obsessed with ‘tick boxery’ and even if we’re not physically writing them down, we’re knocking our tasks and goals one by one in our head and self-inducing a headache.

This cultural pressure cooker of self-improvement, speed and business however inhibits our ability to be present. With so many goals and “little time” to achieve them, we get caught up in the storm of to-do’s, eventually burn ourselves out and then left disappointed that we didn’t quite make it to the end of dry January without going in for a glass of wine. We put pressure on getting in our 10,000 steps in a day, spending x amount of time on hobbies, and then beat ourselves up when we didn’t finish the assignment by the unrealistic date we set ourselves to complete it for in the first place. I’ve stressed myself out thinking about the amount of times I’ve avoided tidying under my bed, when I’ve “failed” to get in my four workouts a week. In my sensible brain, (the brain space I’m currently in as I write this article), I realise it’s all absolute nonsense. But in no time, I will revert to thinking about all the things I want to achieve and how I want to get there, as if I’m putting the fast-forward button on my life.

So, what are the new years’ resolutions, to-do lists and tick box exercises bringing to our daily lives, even as well intentioned as they are? Well, in our attempt to establish control, we have correspondingly lost it. Instead of us being in control of our goals, the goals end up controlling us. In our desperation to tick the box and reach the goal, we get wrapped up in the process of doing and achieving, failing to bring our head above water and simply be present with ourselves and those close to us. We swarm around like zombies on auto-pilot, running from one task to the next which can often lead to weakened relationships, incessant stress levels and little time to focus on the simple things in life

Sure, this obsession with resolutions, goal setting and busyness will lead us to progress and it is an important approach to life (we’d all be at standstill otherwise). But the incessant culture of resolutions, self-improvement and busyness can lead to more harm than good. As somebody who likes to feel a sense of progress in all aspects of my life, I am learning that busyness is not happiness, being present with those around you is.

And while we’ll all undoubtedly slip from being busy to un-busy, stopping and starting, pausing and even fast-forwarding into fears about the future, the importance of striking a balance between chasing after a future and being present with those around us has never been more important. Rather than telling ourselves “time is money”, what we should really be telling ourselves is that “time is precious”.


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