On Campus

New Year’s Resolutions

Making vague promises to yourself about trying harder in school is like yo-yo dieting

It seems like writing about resolutions is the thing to do right now. Only I don’t do personal resolutions. So instead I figured I’d pass along a caution against them. Because one school term has just ended and another is about to begin and this is a time when many students take a hard look at their performance to date and realize it’s got to change. Resolutions may play a part in that change, but they only go so far.

One of the smartest things I ever read about the danger of resolutions was an explanation about yo-yo dieting. The idea is that people derive a lot of satisfaction and enthusiasm from making a new plan to do something about their problems. It doesn’t matter especially if the plan has any substance or makes any sense. The diet plan may be obviously unsustainable or based on some absurd theory about only eating foods that start with the letter “A.” But the rush of doing something, at least, carries people along for a bit and things work in the short term. Then they fall apart, because the things that really need to change haven’t changed.

I hear a lot of students resolve to do better in school and I always immediately follow with some pointed questions. Okay, so you want to get better grades. What are you going to change about your habits and your approach? Far too often the “plan” is only a description of the desired results, or else a vague promise about trying harder. Students feel good about themselves for making that plan. And it does work for a while. But by the end of term it’s all fallen apart again. Just like yo-yo dieting.

For all those who have resolutions regarding school or want to improve on past results, I urge you very strongly to make concrete and realistic plans about what you need to change and then stick to them. I’d bet every one of you knows already what the problems are. Too many skipped classes. Papers handed in late. Shoddy work done at the absolute last second. Too many other commitments and not enough sleep. The problems are almost always very typical ones. But they defy quick-fix solutions.

If you’ve been missing classes you’ve got to diagnose why and change it. Maybe it means cutting out certain social activities or even working less on the side, if you possibly can. If you’re handing work in late or doing it last minute you need to look at your whole schedule (if you have one) and make sure you track things conscientiously and start each assignment when you need to. If you’re run ragged by your combined commitments you simply have to do less. Since school isn’t optional it’ll have to be something else. That may involve a hard conversation with the person you’re dating, or with the coach of your sports team, or something similar. Those are conversations you need to have now rather than later.

Whatever your issues may be, find the habits that cause the problems and take immediate and long-term action to change them. Do it while the enthusiasm from your new resolution is strong. Because that enthusiasm will fade, sooner or later, and then you’ll fall back on routine just like everyone. If you’ve altered your habits sufficiently then hopefully you’ll fall back on your new routine. And that’s what really leads to long-term change. Not the short-term enthusiasm that comes from making vague resolutions.

Happy New Year everyone. Hope it treats you well.

Questions are welcome at jeff.rybak@utoronto.ca. Even those I don’t address here will still receive replies.

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