My new year resolution this year was to eat more Chinese food, both in restaurants and takeout. I have made excellent progress. I also thought it would be nice if I learned to make some basic Chinese dishes, but I didn’t make a resolution to do so. I knew that, in the end, I probably wouldn’t get around to it. Why make promises you can’t keep? And with yourself, of all people: the one person you can’t fool. Of course, I was right. Throughout the year I solicited recipes for dumplings and glamorous-seeming noodles, mostly from friends who had posted pictures on Instagram.
“I’ll be making these this weekend!!!” I would reply, when they sent me a picture of the recipe or, in a few cases, added me to a Google document. Of course, I never did. I’m sure there are no hard feelings: they are my friends, they know what I’m like. For the record: if I send you a message like this you are totally entitled to reply: “I can’t be bothered with this! You won’t use it.”
Besides, it’s not just me who does this. When I share screenshots of articles or pages from books on my own Instagram, I receive a torrent of requests. “Link please!!” they will say, or “Ohhh where from?” When I reply with links or pictures a common refrain is: “On my list!!!”
Do they read them? Who can say. Do these lists exist? I can’t be sure, but I am dubious. All I know is that I rarely hear about it again.
Everyone kids themselves about the amount of time they will spend doing things they don’t really care that much about doing; it’s human nature. New year resolutions bring out this tendency. All of a sudden, a person who never runs plans a half marathon. Someone who read three books last year will now attempt one a week. One person will think that buying a sewing machine will stop them from buying new clothes; another, never a skilled linguist, will try their hand at learning Japanese.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
A few years ago I dropped the pretence and started resolving to do more of the things I like but don’t do enough, like going to see art or visiting friends in other parts of the country more. I’ve never looked back.
This is not an argument for “self-care” or a statement against productivity culture or a stand against capitalism or anything like that. It’s an argument for self-honesty.
People love to make up medical-sounding terms like “productivity dysmorphia” and “millennial burnout” to describe their participation in workplace norms; to talk about capitalism using the language of physical harm or wild animals – “crushed under capitalism’s boots”, “ground beneath the impossible spokes of capitalism’s wheels”, “the gaping maw of capitalism”, “the gnashing teeth of capitalism”, “capitalism’s pickaxe” – and to frame things that are essentially leisure activities (reading fiction, going to a gallery) as arduous demands in tirades about the ills of productivity culture and the societal demands for self-improvement.
The melodrama of this style of writing, talking and thinking (although I hope that nobody, deep down, really thinks like this) is perhaps intended to disguise the fact that this kind of posturing bolsters the culture it purports to critique. Allusions to medical dysfunction or physical threat create the sense that something very dramatic, even transgressive, is being argued. But this discourse still very much operates within a framework in which the individual’s perception of the status they are granted based on how they spend their time is of paramount importance, rather than arguing against it.
At the end of the day, who cares if you read more or take up running? These are things you do for yourself. Outside of the workplace, your productivity is really your own concern (half the time it’s your own concern even in the workplace). The more I think about the grandiose framing of the titanic pressures of modern life, the boots of capitalism marching triumphantly over our leisure time, the more I think it might be a modern way of shielding ourselves from a fundamental human discomfort: that so much of what we do means so little.
Next year why not make a resolution that acknowledges this? As a joke with yourself, if nothing else. I think mine might be to go to the cinema more. Or perhaps another food-based one, since this year’s has gone so well.
Another idea I’ve had recently is to go to more modern dance, inspired by a recent trip to see the Akram Khan Company’s production of Outwitting the Devil at Sadler’s Wells. When a friend of mine got tickets recently I agreed enthusiastically, thinking it sounded cultured and sophisticated, things I would theoretically love to be. But as the day drew nearer I grew resentful. I had images of a troupe of dancers in peach leotards, prancing around pretending to be sprites or medieval courtiers while hurdy-gurdy music played. Or a man dressed as a swan or a stag, not in a convincing costume but some kind of white-and-silver bodysuit with antlers or a beak. I imagined myself sitting with my face contorted in a way that made me look 100 years old, straining to understand what was happening. I began to see that the whole thing reeked of self-improvement.
I projected onto the dancers all the worst qualities of people I occasionally meet at the sort of parties where the big light is on, who have done formal actor training and will put on a silly voice in a normal conversation, or do a pirouette without warning or jump on somebody’s back, causing their legs to buckle. But it wasn’t like that at all.
The show was really extraordinary, a story about memory and regret, learning to accept mortality and wrestling with things you have done that you can’t change. I left with some new ideas; thoughts about things I have done or had done to me; memories of feelings, or new feelings about memories of old feelings; and the sense that we’re really all the same. It was great art, and a reminder that self-improvement really is something you do for yourself. Maybe modern dance has turned out to be one of those things I like but don’t do enough of.