My Scottish heritage gifted me with two major winter celebrations – Christmas and New Year.

As a youngster I preferred Christmas. I’d like to believe I was ahead of my time, because even three centuries after the Scottish Parliament banned ‘Yule vacations’, Scotland was slow to do much about Christmas. My father worked on Christmas Day. No church in town held a Christmas Eve ‘Watchnight’ service nor one on Christmas Day. But I was a Christmas enthusiast, not because of any piety but a love of parties, decorations, eating  food, and, of course, getting lots and lots of  presents.

For many, though, the big festival was Hogmanay. New Year’s Eve meant parties, ceilidhs, lots to drink, a countdown to midnight, more clinking of glasses, and then off to ‘first foot’ the neighbours. First footing could last all right. Unsurprisingly the 1st and 2nd of January were public holidays. Scots needed two days to recover.

Our household celebrated new year, though my parents were moderate with alcohol. But my Mum was not at all moderate with two other traditions.

One was cleaning the house because you shouldn’t carry the old year’s dirt into the next year. Unfortunately, Mum extended the tradition to me, so I got a good scrubbing. Maybe that’s why I preferred Christmas.

Mum also required me to write out a list of new year resolutions. All the things I’d do better. I was left in no doubt a long list was required, because there was much to reform in my young life. What I couldn’t think of, Mum could. Well before midnight, my major sins and their remedies were defined.

But those sins never were remedied. My promises rarely lasted through January 1st. Some years I tried really hard and squeezed out a few extra hours of righteousness, but never became a changed character. When I was about twelve, I stopped making the list and felt better for it.

Most admit they’re little better with their resolutions, whether made at new year or any time. We promise changes in our lives. But the promises rarely last.


Among many reasons, here are four.

Wishful thinking    People have often asked me how to make changes in their lives. A common one was ‘how to give up smoking’. As someone who has never smoked, I couldn’t draw on personal experience but I’d read about addiction, and I knew people who’d beaten the habit. So I would give my best advice.

My advice almost never worked. It wasn’t bad advice. I was often quoting what experts said. But it didn’t address a weakness: the change they said they wanted was no more than wishful thinking. Of course they wished they could stop smoking because they’d be healthier and better off financially. But wishful thinking couldn’t break the bondage in which their habit held them. They needed a much deeper resolve, an iron will, and they were simply not that determined to change.

Over ambitious    I could set myself the goal of jumping a river which is ten metres wide. No matter how strong my iron-will or disciplined my training, I’m not going to do that. I can’t jump that far. All I’d achieve by trying is an unpleasant cold bath. Resolutions need to be realistic and reasonable for who I am and what I can do. Perhaps a goal could be achieved sometime but not at this time. Maybe I could walk fifteen miles, but not right away. Not without taking time build up my stamina and strength in my legs. Then, maybe I’d get there. But if I tried on day one of a new resolution, I’d give up in less than five miles.

Ingrained patterns don’t change easily    I watch one of my fellow golfers hit his shot. He slices his ball into the deep rough. From the tee on the next hole, again he hits a spectacular banana-shaped shot. By now a variety of expletives are being uttered, and before long he says: ‘I hit it straight on the driving range. Why can’t I play like that on the course!?’ Likely, there are at least these reasons: a) he was relaxed on the driving range where there was no score to count; b) on the range he didn’t worry about hitting into the rough or out of bounds; c) on the range he could risk doing what his instructor told him to do with his stance, his grip, his alignment, and how he swung the club. And it worked.

So, why can’t he play like that on the course? Because, faced with playing real golf, he can’t risk a new stance, a new grip, and a new swing. It’s awkward and unsafe. Now the result matters. Now he’s being watched. Almost without being able to help it, he reverts to his ingrained bad habits. ‘I can never change,’ he grumbles.

Faced with real life – not the pages of a book or words of a counsellor – we find change very difficult. We don’t need someone to tell us we’re doing wrong. We know that. But, faced with problems and stresses, we revert to our self-protecting old patterns. The new thing is risky, and we opt out. We can’t make what we think, speak and do change just because the calendar has.

No real desire to change    As an adult I concluded that my resolutions usually failed because I didn’t really want to do things differently. My Mum made me write down things like: ‘I’ll get out of bed earlier’; ‘I’ll keep my room tidier’; ‘I’ll start my school homework sooner’. I never wanted to do those! On a cold winter morning, I was staying under the blankets as long as I could. I wasn’t going to tidy my room when I’d better things to do, like going out to play football. And I hated homework. I’d much rather put it off as long as I could.

The resolutions were fine. I just didn’t want to do them. So the list was never more than nice ideas on a piece of paper. My life didn’t change.

Of course that’s not how everyone feels. But some I’ve counselled talked of being better but didn’t convince me they really wanted to be better. For me and for them, the issue was in the will. It was about having a real desire to live differently.

I haven’t made new year resolutions for many years. But I have made other resolutions. I always have ambitions to change. Sometimes they work out; sometimes they don’t.

I’d never discourage anyone from making resolutions. They’re good; not bad. It may be a tough fight, but I hope you win!