London - Some people have willpower. You can see it holding them up – all can-do and sinewy, it wraps around their bones and fortifies them, like Wolverine’s metal bits. They plough through projects and wrestle workloads, all too often unaware that their ability to see something through to the end puts them in a tiny upper percentile of useful human people.
They do very well at this time of year, people like that, because they give up smoking or take up paragliding. And they don’t just do it for a day – they manage it.
New Year’s resolutions aren’t for everybody, you know, so consider which camp you’re in before you start beating yourself over the head with whatever flimsy pretence of health you’re trying to embark upon this January.
I am not like those willpower people. Ever since I can remember, I have been utterly incapable of sticking to any resolution I have made.
When I was little I once decided to tidy my room by emptying every single cupboard and drawer on to the floor and putting everything back, only much more tidily. Halfway through, I got bored and simply pushed all the toys, clothes and books under my bed and hoped that my mother wouldn’t notice. She did.
My whole existence is still, in many ways, like that bedroom. My life is littered with the rusting hulks of fads co-opted and then forgotten about, the bare bones of things I couldn’t be bothered to finish.
I push them under the metaphorical bed and cover them with snazzy throws, but nothing hides the fact that I am a relentless self-improver of the very worst kind: the kind who never really improves herself at all.
I make lists that always start with the same instruction: “Do more exercise.” I make these lists about once every three months, then fail to implement anything on them. Once, to my eternal shame, I wrote one of these lists in a notebook that, when I leafed through the previous pages, just contained list after list of things I had never got around to doing.
After eight months of intensive physio on my broken leg, my therapist told me that our work was finally finished.
“Am I all back to normal?” I asked, excited. “Could I run a marathon if I wanted?”
“Well, Harriet, given that you couldn’t be bothered to do most of the exercises I gave you, I hardly think you’ll be training for a marathon any time soon, will you?” She had a point. Yet still, in my head, there is every chance that I might run a marathon one day.
Sometimes I manage things for a little while. I started swimming again properly last year and kept it up for quite a decent amount of time, although it is now a few months since I last went.
Sometimes I know even as I write them down that my resolutions will never come to fruition. Such as the “Eat more vegetables” exhortation – I’m inwardly snorting and shaking my head by the time I form the curlicue on the “g”.
But somehow the act of writing these things down calms me; it solidifies them in the shape that I want them to be – the fact that this bears no relation to the reality of the situation or to me is immaterial. Writing things down is an act; making lists lets things be.
With these, I am cataloguing chaos comfortably within my control, whereas, in real life, the moment in which I choose chocolate over vegetables (every time) rests solely in the hands of the gods.
On the surface I’m a fully functioning, responsible adult with organisational prowess and practical capabilities well above those my habits might imply. I meet deadlines, my home is tidy and my hair is brushed, most of the time.
My lack of willpower isn’t even born of any real sense of dissatisfaction with my lot, and it doesn’t prevent me from doing the important stuff, such as paying my rent, keeping my job, living a full and well-rounded, if not exactly healthy, existence. It’s more a sense that I could be doing all of these things as some other, slightly better incarnation of myself.
That’s why I’ve tried, in the past year, hair dye, fake tan, hair extensions, eyelash extensions, dance aerobics, hula-hooping, a personal trainer and lipo.
But it isn’t all bodily vanity – oh no! I’ve also had a go at embroidery, learning Spanish and I nearly joined a choir, which I almost certainly wouldn’t have gone to after the initial dreadful session. I alphabetised my books once, and tried to keep important paperwork safe. For a time, my housemate and I used our grill as a filing cabinet.
I kitted myself out with all the cycling gear I’d need, then rode to work once. I promised myself I’d go to loads more talks and debates and general cultural events, and then went to one.
I told myself I’d read 50 books last year, by writers such as Nabokov and Philip Roth, and I started listing the ones I got through. The list reads The Fifth Queen by Ford Madox Ford; Game of Thrones books one to five.
It’s a modern sickness that afflicts far more people than most of us realise. Certainly, if you’re one of the can-do sorts, you won’t have even begun to imagine that so many of your species devote so much time to trying and failing to be anything other than who they are.
It’s more of a female tendency, but that isn’t to say men are immune – the fact that Men’s Health sells so well is proof of that. There’s an ever-growing vein of self-improvement literature that has generated billions for publishers in the past five years.
Helping us realise our dreams of validation and vigour is lucrative – even more so should the poor saps then fail in their mission and find themselves in the market for another cure-all.
Self-improvement is as much of an addiction as yo-yo dieting, or smoking, because the whole deal is founded on the notion that you are most likely not the type of person who will ever be satisfied with who you are, or what you have. That’s not to say it’s a bad thing – those who constantly strive to improve may well be a bit dull, but we’re not immoral.
It shows you have get-up-and-go. Or something. But there’s only so much get-up-and-go one person can have; at some point it turns into sit-down-and-stop. That’s why so many of the things offered around this time of year, to help strengthen our resolve and keep us on the straight and narrow, have such a punitive angle.
I once went on a week-long yoga detox, which involved absolutely no food (whizzed-up vegetable drinks only) and two enemas a day. Halfway through, the intense longing for a pie actually made me weep but, seeing as there was no way to fall off the wagon (the setting was so rural that there was hardly even a wagon), I had to stick to the regime. It was miserable, so as soon as it ended, I went to McDonald’s. I have never felt more guilty or contemptuous of my lack of stamina. But it was a great burger.
So I do understand the people who do bootcamps in the park on Saturdays. I wouldn’t want to be one of them, but I get it. As with so many things in life, unpleasant tasks are much easier to get on with if someone is shouting at you that you have to do them.
Perhaps the main problem with self-improvement among my generation of giver-uppers is the lack of self-motivation. In other words, we have it too good and always have had. We rarely do things we don’t like doing; I’ve never had to pull myself up by my bootstraps. Is it manifesting itself now as existential guilt, this Sisyphean striving for an eternally elusive end result?
No, far more likely an answer is just that I’m self-obsessed: apart from reading, watching TV and drinking, my main hobby is me. And I’m not alone. Not everyone is a millionaire or going out with a model, so other people must fail too.
We’re simply not used to things that aren’t a quick fix. Hate housework? Get a cleaner. Can’t be bothered to read a book? Wikipedia. There are very few chores, per se, that actually exist any more – just imagine what our ancestors would think if they saw us in our bootcamps. They’d be completely befuddled. They’d think we were the village idiots, not them.
But that’s how it stands. We invent chores for ourselves, we make ourselves jump hurdles – and some of us manage, some of us don’t. We opt for things that we think will make us better people. Then we realise it takes quite a lot of effort to be a better person. We fail, we chastise ourselves, we loathe ourselves, we try again. It’s a Hegelian battle of wills between what you want and what you think you should want.
I’ve tried being a self-starter. At university, I decided to embark on jogging. I got all togged up in the kit, then went out for my run. I ran for a little bit, then I turned around and went back to watching TV.
That incident of humiliating failure I don’t count as strictly my fault. The intention was at least there. Ditto with the embroidery – I bought a “how to” guide and everything, but then I was too busy doing other stuff to try it.
I even booked and paid for the dance aerobics – the problem was that I went out the night before, had loads more fun than I was expecting to and took the executive decision not to go the next day.
And actually, I am happier for that decision. I don’t see the point in doing things that one isn’t passionate about. I am passionate about seeing the people I love and laughing with them, and that’s what I spend most of my time doing.
So this year my resolution was simply to do things that would make my life better, and I’m not convinced that learning a craft or taking dance lessons would. In fact, perennial self-improvement is a hobby in itself. And it takes up an awful lot of time, you know. – The Independent