was halfway through a three-mile run in my neighborhood last week when I realized I’d accidentally set a New Year’s resolution. It wasn’t technically 2019 yet — it was December 31st — but it was my first run in a year, I was tracking it on a brand new app I’d downloaded to log “my future runs,” and I was already creating fantasy montages in my head of lacing up my sneakers in the coming year. If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then I guess I’m a cliche.
The idea to start running again came to me in the form of several hints. Or things I took as hints, which is a hint itself. In the month of December, three different creatives I admire referenced exercise as an absolute (albeit hated) must for their energy and mental wellbeing. Huh. Then my doctor asked if I’d thought about starting a regimen for some of my physical symptoms. Then my therapist asked the same thing for some of my mental symptoms. Then my brother told me about a new running app he’s been loving, and then I huffed my way up another set of subway stairs.
Only a few weeks earlier, I’d cockily posited that resolutions were becoming obsolete in the self-improvement age. If everyone is constantly trying to be better, what’s the difference between December and January? But I’d forgotten the magnetic power of the fresh-start effect, whereby “people are more likely to take action towards a goal after temporal landmarks that represent new beginnings.” It’s like buying fresh notebooks in September, or running a marathon before you turn 30 (or 40, or 50). It turns out I’m not immune. In fact, I played right into the New Year’s hand with the most predictable resolution ever: to start exercising.
But bear with me as I dig myself even deeper into this stereotype: Something about this time feels different. I’ve started and stopped exercising many times in the last decade — each time an attempt to revive the version of me who broke school records on my high school track team and could chase after a ball for 90 minutes at a time. They never quite stuck. Over the last year, whenever I had the urge to start again — after a bad hangover, when I saw my friends get in shape, when I lost my breath doing something casual — I resisted. I didn’t want to fail again. I kept thinking about it anyway.
Maybe that’s how New Year’s resolutions happen, whether we consciously resist the cliche or not: The turnover of the year, and all its associated time off, offers the perfect opportunity to pick up the ideas we’ve let marinate the longest. Different from the constant churn to improve (Should I try washing my hair with mayo? Should I start eating flax seeds? Should I avoid nightshades? What’s a nightshade?), the new year has a longer memory than a trending hashtag: 12 months. The things you’ve been considering or avoiding for a while have a way of bubbling up.
Those hints I clocked in December wouldn’t have registered if I wasn’t genuinely committed to tending to my mental health, a shift that’s occurred in me over the past month with unusual significance. And I’ve never started an exercise regimen while maintaining no interest in losing weight or looking fit — two things that have, for the first time in my life, completely dropped off my radar over the past year. That’s why I say this time feels different; this change feels like a genuine act of self-love, rather than one of self-discipline. It didn’t feel doable until I was ready to see it that way.
But maybe I’m just drunk on a fresh start. Did you set a resolution this year? If so, did it feel different from your typical self-improvement hijinx, or not at all?
Photo by Hamburg Foto:BONGARTS/Lutz Bongarts via Getty Images.