Why does January make us believe we will behave better than ever before?

Why does January make us believe we will behave better than ever before?

It’s back to work after the Christmas break.  It feels like a fresh start.  An opportunity to wipe away the frustrations and disappointments of the last year and become my best self.  In December I spent a good amount of time reflecting on what had been, how I had shown up and what I could change to improve how the new year goes.  I set some goals and thought about the what, the how and the who of me this year.  The things I always wish I’d done more of.  Or less of.  And agreed some steps with myself to get there.  Writing everyday is one of them.  It has been for years, but I get distracted, which is another story.

It’s strange how, in the run up to Christmas and that strange lull between Christmas and New Year, everything feels different.  We rest.  We indulge. We spend time with friends and family that we don’t normally get round to.  We are thoughtful about gifts.  We, or at least I, properly let go of my working concerns and have some down time.

And in that strange glow of the end of the year everything seems possible.  I can be and do anything.  This year, it really will be different.  By the end I will be proud of all I accomplished.  How calm and kind and patient I’ve been.  How creative.  How organised.  How beautifully clean, tidy and ordered my house is.  What a magical, productive and rejuvenating haven our garden is - for us and for nature.  How fit I am. Strong, lean, full of energy with such great stamina.  I can picture it all.  Smell it. Sense the satisfaction of my perfect life.

But this vision is just that.  A fantasy. Something that I hold in my mind that, as Oliver Burkeman says in 4,000 Weeks, can actually stop us doing anything. Because reality will never live up to our expectations.  We can’t possibly fit it all in.  But imagining our perfect future – that’s fun.  We get a warm rosy glow.  A hit or two of dopamine and serotonin.  Escape from the mundane.  The muddle. The stress of now.

One of my favourite books is Ishmaelby Daniel Quinn.  One of the key ideas that struck a chord is how we have such expectations that people will behave better than they have ever behaved and are constantly surprised when we are let down by imperfect behaviour.  I see this in the setting of new year’s resolutions that get ditched within a few months.  In lofty goals and visions that aren’t grounded in reality.  In taking on too much and then throwing in the towel because we are overwhelmed, overtired and just want to put our feet up, have a glass of wine then go to bed.

In the 4 disciplines of execution, the authors study the reasons why some people and organisations don’t achieve their most important goals while others do.  What they found was that stops us is……life!  All the things we don’t factor in.  The interruptions.  The distractions.  The things we forget that we need to get done until they are in our faces.  Jim Benson, in Personal Kanban suggests that the solution is to allocate time to allow space for the unexpected.  The routine admin of life and work.  Reviewing.  Reflecting. Planning.  Because, if we don’t, then we are easily overwhelmed and stress prevents us from thinking and acting clearly.

So, this year, I’m aiming to keep it simple.  Remind myself that what I have right now is pretty great.  That spending too much time fantasising about my perfect, just out of reach life keeps me stuck.  Stops me from taking the small, often mundane steps each day that will enable me to make progress towards the vision I hold.  But also, that all that matters is now.  None of us know how much more now we will get.  Holding onto a view that life is only worth living when you get to someplace else or become somebody different is a recipe for stress and misery today and disappointment in the future.  And I have started as I mean to go on – this piece is written and shared.  Let’s see how the next 51 weeks go…