I used to start all my New Year’s resolutions in the traditional manner. I would make a list of all the ways in which I would mould myself literally (at the gym! To and from which I will daily run!) and figuratively (Dickens! Subtitled films! Meditation, yoga and voluntary work!) into a New Me. I would determine to make good the festive depredations on my bank account by eating baked beans on toast all month and not going out til March. On January 1 I would sally boldly forth, flourishing my good intentions like a knight his lance as I went into battle with the life forces (Lee Child! Die Hard! Restaurants! Anything but the gym!) ranged against me.
By January 15, of course, that battle would be over. A life of beans, Dickens and social isolation cannot be sustained (though the social isolation probably should be until you have given up the beans). And then I would naturally overcompensate – mainly by blowing all my money on overeating proper food out with friends before lurching home to sit on the sofa bingeing excellent rubbish on Netflix. All while the gym quietly continued collecting my monthly direct debit – and the meditation courses I had booked and yoga gear I had bought turned out to be non-refundable.
After twenty or so years of this pattern repeating itself, I realised – for I am a quick learner – that it was time to admit that here, as in so much of life, grand gestures fail to work. Success comes in smaller packages.
To go to extremes is to set yourself up to fail. Realistic goals, sensible expectations and sustainable practices are what will actually get you where you want to be. January should be a time to think and plan as well as execute.
This year, for example, I admitted to myself that I hate the noisy, sweaty, punishment of the gym. I sign up and I never go. That direct debit is basically a fine for sloth at this point. So I stopped it and I signed up for a much cheaper pool pass instead because I WILL go swimming – it’s quiet and lovely, even if it alone won’t give you abs of steel, and represents a much better return on my investment in every way. I go out once a week and commit to home-cooked food for the rest rather than beans on toast. These are all habits I can maintain, instead of collapsing in a wailing heap within a fortnight.
As with diet and exercise, so with saving and investment. It doesn’t have to hurt. Little and often is fine, and will add up to a whole lot more than once-and-never-again. January has become the time I take stock of myself financially as well as physically and mentally. I sit down and work out how much my income and bills have changed since last year, what kind of spending I’ve started to overindulge in (books and jumpers, basically) so I can rein myself in where necessary. And then I decide whether and how much more money I can set aside every month without pain (or a lack of reading material/warmth). It makes me feel saintly, even thought it’s entirely for my own good – the perfect New Year’s resolution.
Think how Christmas seems to come round faster every year. That’s because as we get older, life really does effectively speed up. A year becomes a smaller fraction of the time we’ve lived and a larger one of the time we have left. Our decisions become more momentous. So take a bit of time to make some good ones. Up your savings. Be brave with your investments. Buy a swimming costume.
Remember all those things you want – a flat, a pension, freedom and independence once you cast off the shackles of work forever – and ask yourself what you need to do now to make them happen. Have a happy new year planning – perhaps as you gently backstroke down the pool – for future ones too.
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Lucy Mangan Journalist