In notebooks, on Post-its, or squeezed into the blank spaces of an unattempted newspaper crossword.
A lover of lists will seek out any vacant writing surface to dash off their agendas and to-dos. This time of year, in particular, offers ample opportunity for a spot of chronicling and cataloguing – from the ever-growing present list to the pre-Christmas groceries.
But as the New Year rolls in, the sort of items that get totted up on the tick-lists move from tangible gifts and eatables into the hazy realm of annual aspirations, as humankind takes its pledge to polish itself up, to weed out its unhealthy habits and cultivate healthy ones. Because this year, we will definitely, maybe, perhaps a) take up boxercise, b) buy a NutriBullet, and c) learn Cantonese.
Resolutions mapped out, we smugly envisage our green juices at breakfast, throwing an expert left hook, and navigating Hong Kong like a native. We smile contentedly as we peruse the list of grand plans displayed proudly on the cork-board, or magneted to the fridge.
But that’s where the plans stop. They remain, listlessly listed, idling away on the paper or Post-it. Because the NutriBullet can always wait till next year – and who has time for Cantonese, anyway?
Having the grit to stick to our yearly blueprint is a much trickier business than our January burst of motivation would care to admit. Though that’s no reason to throw in the towel just yet; New Year’s resolutions need not be a regurgitation of the usual oaths sworn under the influence of post-Christmas guilt.
The best ones — the resolutions that we actually stick to — are a matter of altering both behavioural and thinking patterns. They look beyond purely physical improvement, beyond the (untouched) gym membership and the spirulina smoothies, towards a rewiring of our psychological habit loops. The beginning of a year just offers a convenient invitation for making a start with the process.
A glance at some of the more unconventional resolution lists, taken from the letters and diaries of cultural icons, might be a small source of inspiration for those of us who don’t quite know where to start.
1) Woody Guthrie
In 1942, at the age of almost thirty, musician and singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie wrote himself a list of resolutions, equal parts brave and vulnerable, sincere and tongue-in-cheek:
1. Work more and better
2. Work by a schedule
3. Wash teeth if any
5. Take bath
6. Eat good — fruit — vegetables — milk
7. Drink very scant if any
8. Write a song a day
9. Wear clean clothes — look good
10. Shine shoes
11. Change socks
12. Change bed cloths often
13. Read lots good books
14. Listen to radio a lot
15. Learn people better
16. Keep rancho clean
17. Dont get lonesome
18. Stay glad
19. Keep hoping machine running
20. Dream good
21. Bank all extra money
22. Save dough
23. Have company but dont waste time
24. Send Mary and kids money
25. Play and sing good
26. Dance better
27. Help win war — beat fascism
28. Love mama
29. Love papa
30. Love Pete
31. Love everybody
32. Make up your mind
33. Wake up and fight
2) Susan Sontag
At the age of 39, in 1972, Susan Sontag wrote in her diary:
Kindness, kindness, kindness.
I want to make a New Year’s prayer, not a resolution. I’m praying for courage.
Then, in 1977:
Starting tomorrow — if not today:
I will get up every morning no later than eight. (Can break this rule once a week.)
I will write in the Notebook every day. (Model: Lichtenberg’s Waste Books.)
I will tell people not to call in the morning, or not answer the phone.
I will try to confine my reading to the evening. (I read too much — as an escape from writing.)
I will answer letters once a week.
3) Marilyn Monroe
In the winter of 1955, a 29-year-old Marilyn Monroe resolved in her leather-bound address book to do, and do things better:
Must make effort to do.
Must have the dicipline to do the following –
z – go to class – my own always – without fail
x – go as often as possible to observe Strassberg’s other private classes
g – never miss actor’s studio sessions
v – work whenever possible – on class assignments – and always keep working on the acting exercises
u – start attending Clurman lectures – also Lee Strassberg’s directors lectures at theater wing – enquire about both
l – keep looking around me – only much more so – observing – but not only myself but others and everything – take things for what they are worth
y – must make strong effort to work on current problems and phobias that out of my past has arisen – making much much much more more more more more effort in my analisis. And be there always on time – no excuses for being ever late.
w – if possible – take at least one class at university – in literature –
o – follow RCA thing through.
p – try to find someone to take dancing from – body work (creative)
t – take care of my instrument – personally & bodily (exercise)
try to enjoy myself when I can – I’ll be miserable enough as it is.
Though we know little about how – or whether – their aspirations were made real, these entries offer little fragments of gold dust that we might sprinkle into our own lists: “Keep hoping machine running”, “try to enjoy myself when I can”, “Kindness, kindness, kindness”.
As well as reading lots of good books, getting up a little earlier, working on our problems and fears, and loving everybody.
And, you know, taking a bath now and then.
Photography: Daniel Walcher
Further reading: Famous Resolution Lists