Wednesday, December 31, 2008

New Year's Irresolution

I hope I am not alone in finding it peculiar that we celebrate the New Year by breaking our own resolutions.

In the spirit of the season, and following a custom that apparently dates to ancient Babylon, many of us draw up a list of New Year's resolutions. Thereby, we mark the new year as an opportunity for self-improvement.

But we are not resolute about keeping them. Usually, we break our resolutions within a week of making them. And we do not give the matter much thought either.

Few people feel even a twinge of embarrassment. It is as though we see the process as part of the larger Bacchanalian indulgence that greets the New Year.

The problem is: New Year's resolutions involve our everyday life... the one that resumes after the hangover is gone.

Since no one really considers them to be binding, why not call these resolutions a wish list, like the lists of the toys we wanted to receive from Santa Claus.

A resolution differs from a wish because you have the power to keep or to break a resolution. You do not have the power to keep or to break the wishes you sent to Santa Claus.

New Year's is celebrated as a time of renewal. Since our calendar places it at the beginning of January, we confer the aegis of the god Janus on it. As you Janus looks both forward and backward at the same time. At New Year's we atone for past errors, and, putting them behind us. resolve to improve ourselves in the future.

Standard resolutions aim at eliminating sins like: smoking, over-eating, arrogance, and sloth. Others point us toward better habits in the future: working harder, learning French, thinking more positively, and learning to do yoga.

As goals, these are admirable. Why are they so difficult to keep?

First, they are imprecise. Second, they are too large. Third, we rarely plan out how we are going to accomplish them.

In effect, our resolutions are glorified wishes. I do not want to be priggish about it, and I do not want to wring the fun out of the holiday, but this practice offers the wrong lesson.

It is a bad idea to act as though your word were a mere wish, an intention that you can breach with impunity.

So, this year I recommend that we all make at least one resolution that we are going to keep. Closing the gap between what we say and what we do would be a great leap forward into character-building.

You can do it by emulating the tortoise, not the hare.

Make your resolutions specific and manageable. You can resolve to do acupuncture to stop smoking. You can vow to join weight watchers or to consult with a nutritionist. You can resolve to join a gym and to buy ten training sessions. You can vow to sign up for French classes or to plan a family trip to Acapulco. And you can resolve to write down three good qualities you see in someone you dislike.

This rule applies to other life situations. Anytime you are starting a project or engaging a new activity, begin with what is manageable. If you have recently been promoted, do not worry about crisis intervention or policy-making. Begin by bringing your wardrobe up to the level of your new job.

Admittedly, this is not sexy. But most people get lost when considering the complexities of large, ill-defined tasks. Making a plan that sets out the steps to achieving a goal is essential to achieving a goal.

The same applies to the greatest problem most people had in 2008: declining portfolio values. According to this rule, do not resolve to get it all back in 2009.

Instead, resolve to take a course on investment analysis, to learn about all of the stock you own, to study the larger financial landscape, and especially, to take small positions before making large commitments.

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