As this year comes to a close, it is time to reflect and make resolutions for positive change next year. That got me thinking about the new-year resolutions, they are fascinating and not entirely a creation of the modern world (something I learnt recently). Apart from anything they are a fascinating window to inner-life of our motivations. However, before we get into it here is a brief agrarian origins of our new-year resolutions. The first record of new year festivities can be traced back to the Babylonians around 4000 years back, their new year coincided with the agriculture season and the 12 day period which marked the new year or Akita was used for making promises to the gods to curry favour for the new harvest season. Most of the resolutions at this time dealt with ensuring that they repay their debts, or return any items borrowed. Perhaps it continues today in a the form of people making resolutions to be credit card debt free. Or Save more. The Egyptians continued this practice by raying to the Hapi or the god of Nile at the start of their new year which coincided with the annual flood of the Nile. Their resolutions were largely to ensure that their worship and sacrifice meant that they would have a good and productive agricultural season.
The Romans had the most interesting relationship with the new year resolutions, as they modified the new year quite a few times by jigging the calendar. Finally in 46 BC Julius Caesar made January the official start of the year, and since this was the beginning of the term of the newly elected consuls it became a civic rotation and not an agrarian rotation. January is the month in the honour of the Roman god Janus responsible for beginnings and endings. It was only befitting that there were a series of attempts during the middle ages in Europe to change the new-year and make it go back to some sort of religious event. January survived as the first month, the resolutions through were lost till their re-discovery by imaginative newspapers especially in the margins of the Anglo-Saxon world. New Year resolution made entry in our lexicon for the first time reportedly in 1813 in a Boston newspaper the religious fervour of the resolutions had been lost, it was something on the modern lines like living a healthier life, and being more industrious. That new-year resolutions have survived till now reveal their importance in anchoring and cataloguing our lives. A dated poll from 2019 conducted by IPSOS revealed that around 45% of people in the UK, US make a resolution and only 10% kept them. However, from the last two years people making resolutions have come down (currently a survey in the US tracks it at just 37%) but the willingness to complete their resolution has gone up considerably. Around 87% are hopeful of keeping them throughout the year in 2023.
Though 87% is a good number, and great intentions abound as the Auld Lang Syne plays, the months pass and life gets in the way of good intentions. So, how do we make habits stick? Though there is a huge market for transformation economy. Let us take a stab at this with the tool of economics.
We get back to Cyril Northcote Parkinson who in a satirical essay for The Economist stated that work expands the time allocated for its completion. This principle has been used in one of the earlier newsletters, but when it comes to keeping us motivated this is especially useful. When we have work which has been assigned to us to be competed in three months, people often find themselves starting the work a few days before it needs to be done, and it has been replicated multiple times, the most interesting is from this paper in 1999.We all have a limited capacity for memory, attention, and fatigue. This is a point that economists Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir talk about in Scarcity: The True Cost of Not Having Enough. They argue that big projects require us to concentrate on them at the exclusion of other important things, and it might not be sustainable over a long period of time. Therefore we ought to have a cut-off for big goals instead of constant tinkering. So if one were to set a goal and keep at it for an year, sometime during the year fatigue sets in. The trick is to keep on going till there is a some pleasure in it, and it is not too costly for us. When we get started on a new hobby it comes at the cost of something else that we find pleasurable but want to do a little less of (everyone has that one habit, what's yours?) and after going at our new found hobby with a gusto, slowly the older habit makes a slight entry, and in no time we are back at the old behaviour pattern. If one were to slightly tweak the Parkinson's law, and start slow on the new work, but do it everyday, and do it till it becomes enjoyable and no-longer a chore to be completed. It slowly could become enjoyable, and if one were to add an accountability partner to it using services like Stickk or better still friends, et voila you have beaten the odds, and Cyril Parkinson doffs his hat to you (probably!)