Over the years, I have learned a few strategies for making new year resolutions: keep them simple, tell as few people about them as possible and do not under any circumstances write them down.
I’ve learned this the hard way. One year I announced – under pressure at a New Year’s Eve party – that I was going to write a play. I never even opened a new document to that effect, but I spent a lot of time worrying about this latest item on the long list of things I will almost certainly never manage.
This time around I’m going to give up on the goal-oriented approach; I’m tired of disappointing myself. I don’t want to worry about any promises I made and didn’t keep all through 2023. Instead, I’m going to try to stop doing something: worrying.
For me, worry is a major blight hanging over what is an otherwise pretty charmed life. Compared with a lot of people, I don’t have very much to worry about. But worry is as irrational as it is powerful; it dominates my thinking about work, about social engagements, about the stupid day-to-day admin of being a human. I feel a spike of anxiety when the day’s post hits the mat, and when I see a new email in my inbox. If I have nothing to worry about, I worry about the lack of worry – it must mean I’ve overlooked something, or I’m owed some form of comeuppance.
I also have a tendency to carry the previous year’s failures over to the next year’s balance sheet, so I’m still worrying about the net effect of things I didn’t achieve in 2017. Adding annual new year resolutions to the pile seems a little counterproductive.
Some anxiety is unavoidable and even necessary. Most of my work is done to a deadline, and if weren’t for the anxiety a deadline generates I would probably never finish anything. My professional life consists of one late homework assignment after another and, for better or worse, I’m used to it.
In difficult times, worry can even feel like a form of control. By worrying about my problems, I am at least keeping them uppermost in my thinking. If I’m behind on work, I’ll often get up early to worry about it for an hour or two, and spend the rest of the day pretending that counts as progress.
But worry on its own doesn’t fix anything, and it doesn’t achieve anything. Travel anxiety won’t prevent a holiday disaster. Worrying about an upcoming meeting doesn’t push it back or bring it forward; it still arrives at the appointed hour. Worrying about paperwork doesn’t get it done; at some point you have to stop fretting and fill in the forms. Sometimes, I feel as if my actual work is something I dash off quickly in between prolonged bouts of worry. I’d like to stop.
Halfway through 2023, I’m going to turn 60. It’s easy to look on this milestone as yet another deadline to be missed. I could probably still get fit by the time I’m 60, but I think I’ve left it too late to learn Italian. I think it might be easier to wipe the slate clean. It shouldn’t be about what I can achieve by the time I’m 60, but afterwards.
I’m not sure how to go about this – right now it’s just an aim in search of a strategy. I doubt I could, or should, eliminate anxiety from my life, but I have some past success with restricting the amount of time I allow myself to freak out about things: the whole day before a deadline, not the whole week before. And although I hate to admit it, worry can sometimes be a bit performative, a display of impotent hand-wringing for the benefit of my wife and children. Occasionally, I forget to worry just because there’s no one around to do it in front of.
Maybe I’ll spend New Year’s Eve thinking about the things I did actually manage to achieve in the past 12 months and exhibit a bit of gratitude for all the bad outcomes that somehow passed me by in 2022. I could also do with getting more exercise and better sleep, but those sound a bit like resolutions, and I’m all done with them. If nothing else, I’m going to stop worrying about that play I never wrote.