Here's a brief essay I wrote on New Year's Resolutions, published today in the San Francisco Chronicle with lovely images of lists:
Annual vows don't really make sense. Change happens in fits and starts. Who can keep a promise to do yoga or read more books for a whole year? Who hasn't known the despair of promising the same thing, year after year? (For me, it's the increasingly faintly scribbled "meditate.")
Such a feeling of fatalism surrounds resolutions. If something is a resolution, it, a priori, will be doomed.
At the same time, for me, it's impossible to keep my mind from wandering to all the ways I want 2008 to be different. I've never wanted to throw out New Year's resolutions the way I vow to throw away my bad habits.
This year I will make these "life improvements" or have these "intentions" (the low-pressure, New Age-y version; "resolution" can have a grim tone).
This year, I vow to do things tiny to large: organize the mountains of paper in my bedroom, regularly stock my cabinets with groceries, find a boyfriend I can take anywhere, travel outside the United States and the overarching resolution - create a better separation between work and my personal life. I vow, this year, to absolutely not check my e-mail first thing in the morning. Instead, I will greet the day by running, meditating or writing.
The New Year's list is the meta to-do list, and I am sure I will jot down many more. Unlike in my daily lists, I am not worried about crossing everything off. I am more concerned with committing my wishes to paper.
Surely if I cultivate the focused energy of writing down what I want, it will be more likely to happen. That's the magic of a list. Write it down, and somehow, it's 5,000 times more likely to happen. My list will be handwritten, too. That way, essential neurons fire in a way that don't quite happen when I type, and when I look back on my list 20 years from now and think about the person who wanted to travel in South America and buy a house with a wraparound porch (What will the 54-year-old think of me now?)
Of course, we can resolve to make changes any time of year. Jan. 1 is arbitrary, and probably not convenient, since we're engaged in a self-destructive binge of shopping and eating in December.
But January is the month for collective introspection. As private as New Year's resolutions can be, they're also the lists we are most likely to share. We have a national conversation about introspection only once a year.
I like asking people about their resolutions for 2008 because it's a deeper way of asking, "How are you?" I ask my parents and they tell me that they want to retire. My sister tells me that she also wants to have a more varied existence, beyond work. (Jobs are just too consuming these days.)
We all have our daily to-do lists: pick up cat litter, order camera accessories. But our New Year's lists are the wide angle on our lives. I love to hear what people say. It's confirmation, for me, in a way, even therapeutic. It's reassuring to know that we all have to-do lists, that we are all works in progress.