The hottest trend in New Year's resolutions is deciding not to make one at all. According to a recent New York Times article, Gen Zers and millennials increasingly don’t see the point of the tradition, preferring instead to enact personal changes throughout the year. For many, the unpredictability of the pandemic has made the idea of forward-planning all but redundant: The Atlantic’s Faith Hill argued that “resolutions are not the vibe for 2022”, because the future is so uncertain that “choosing new goals feels like setting forth in a snowstorm, squinting into a great blurry expanse.” Other writers have suggested that, after two years of upheaval, we deserve to give ourselves a break: “The problem with most resolutions—like vowing to lose weight or be ‘more’ ‘productive’—is they’re usually formulated as a task that whispers to us that we’re not good enough as we are, that we need to strive to be better,” writes Anneleise Griffin in The Cut. Some people have set themselves the resolution of being less productive, which, however laudable, inevitably sounds like something of a humble-brag.
Beyond the question of whether we should be making New Year’s resolutions at this specific historical moment, there’s a growing consensus that—even in the best of times—they’re rarely effective. There is research which suggests a vanishingly small number of people are able to keep them up, while studies show that setting these goals can be detrimental to your well being—remarkably, this is sometimes true even if you succeed. However, there is also evidence to suggest that New Year’s resolutions can be valuable, depending on how you make them: some experts stress the difference between extrinsic goals, which revolve around the approval of other people and material rewards, versus intrinsic ones, which are more about meeting your own psychological needs and focusing on the process. This could amount to thinking differently about the same ambition: to take the example of losing weight (which remains one of Americans’ most popular resolutions), you would want to think about enjoying the process of exercising rather than focusing on the aesthetic benefits you might enjoy as a result. Research shows that the intrinsic way of conceptualizing a resolution is more likely to make you happy. But when it comes to the workplace, this framework gets a little trickier: it’s easy enough to derive pleasure from the process of going to the gym or learning a language. But finding a similar enjoyment in improving your performance at work—developing your Excel skills or honing a more authoritative tone when writing emails—might be a little more challenging.
In 2022, it’s striking that many of the resolutions that people are making about work are not about getting better at one’s job at all, as in previous years, but about doing far less of it. The assumption that work ought to be a source of meaning in our lives has—rightfully—come under attack in recent years. “Work, for the vast majority of people, is not, as it promises to be, a viable means for self-expression, but an affront to freedom—something that eats up our lives,” writes Amelia Horgan in her acclaimed non-fiction book, Lost in Work: Escaping Capitalism. In the US, workers were found to be working the equivalent of one day of unpaid overtime per week, while another study revealed that people spend an average of eight hours a week replying to work emails in their own time. It’s a feature of the way the economy is organized that our employers are incentivized to wring every ounce of productivity out of us that they can, which has led to a widespread culture of over-work.
In Steal as Much as You Can, a book about the culture industries, Natalie Olah writes, “It’s essential to remember that in the market economy, you—your body and your mind—are no more than a commodity in the eyes of your employer.” In light of this, she advocates viewing your relationship with your bosses as an antagonistic one, and resolving to do the bare minimum at work. “I have tried, wherever possible, to remain as transactional in my treatment of my employers as they are with me, resisting the call from bosses to socialize and devote any more time that is necessary to the purposes of an organization that doesn’t value me beyond my contribution,” she writes.
“Don’t work harder than I strictly have to” might be a good resolution, but it would be patronizing to assume that this is a matter of choice for most people, or that the idea simply hasn’t occurred to them. There are many ways that our employers can coerce us into working longer hours than we’re paid for, whether this takes the form of explicit directives or office norms which are unspoken but nonetheless oppressive. If you are in the fortunate position where it is within your control whether you choose to do unpaid overtime, then resolving not to do this is more than just permissible—it’s noble. If you hold a senior position and always take your full lunch break, or leave exactly when the working day ends, then you make it easier for your team to do the same. As a workplace resolution, this would have the benefit of improving the lives of people around you as well as your own. But to truly improve the workplace, we need to organize with other people. As Horgan writes, “Acting as individuals doesn’t get us very far, even if it does mean we can cope with the worst bits of our jobs.” If you really want to improve your working life, then the best New Year’s resolution might be to join a union.
While there’s a lot of merit to rejecting the supremacy of workplace productivity, it’s possible to throw the baby out with the bathwater. We should bear in mind that not all efforts at self-improvement are the outcome of a neoliberal plot to capture our imagination. There’s an idea I’ve seen expressed a lot recently, both in writing and on social media: Because we have lived through two years of a pandemic (this is often paired with ‘climate change’ and ‘the threat of rising authoritarianism’), we should swerve the idea of self-betterment entirely and instead just do whatever we want. According to this way of thinking, simply getting through the day is impressive; worthy of praise and treats: “It’s time to drink the fancy wine we’ve been saving for the ‘right’ moment,” writes Griffin in The Cut, “enjoy that cookie plate without calculating the spin class you’ll burn it off at, and sit on the couch and watch something for the third time.”
I don’t have any moral objection to this viewpoint, which seems sincere in its efforts to comfort people at a miserable time, but in my own life I have found that indulging all of my whims usually doesn’t make me any happier. Does “watching something for the third time” even sound particularly fun? Is this the height of decadence to which we can aspire? While disentangling the demands of capitalism from our own desires is a worthwhile task, sometimes working on yourself really does pay off. Exercise and eating healthily, for example, usually make you feel better, which doesn’t have to be bound up with losing weight or gaining muscle. Similarly, many of us have long-term goals we want to achieve for reasons which run deeper than a desire to earn money or accrue status (I don’t think wanting to learn a new language or start playing a musical instrument, for instance, is evidence that you’ve internalized some sinister dictate of late capitalism.) Some of these goals may even be related to our careers.
Personally, I have a propensity to spend my free time doing things which are indulgent (going to the pub, reading badly written airport thrillers) instead of activities which would probably, in a roundabout way, make me better at my job (reading Henry James, attending screenings of contemporary arthouse films, writing a novel), although I do try from time to time. The difficulty is that in the short term, I almost always feel like doing whatever is easiest and most straightforwardly pleasurable. And that’s fine: it’s not a moral failing and it’s no skin off anyone else’s nose that I don’t use my leisure time as improvingly as I might. But plenty of other people do spend their time writing fiction, reading the classics, or attending 6 a.m. CrossFit classes. However “valid” or “legitimate” it might be for me to reject self-optimization, I can’t then complain when other people are more erudite, better at writing, and have more sharply-defined abdominal muscles than me. I am not intrinsically entitled to be excellent at what I do, and it doesn’t really matter if I’m not—few people are.
This dynamic applies to the world of work, too. I think it’s broadly a good thing to view your relationship with your employers as antagonistic, while endeavoring to do the exact amount of work required to not get fired and no more. But if you go down this route, you can’t then feel aggrieved if you get passed over for promotion, or miss out on the kind of career opportunities which come about through being seen as someone willing to go the extra mile. It comes down to how much you care about your job: if the answer is “a lot”, then it’s going to be harder to opt out of productivity culture, because there will likely be consequences to even the most reasonable attempts at protecting your own time and wellbeing. Whether we like it or not, it’s an unfortunate fact that the modern workplace does reward over-work and a cheerful willingness to allow oneself to be exploited. It is unjust to be denied career advancement because you refuse to do unpaid overtime, but that’s the world that we live in, and we’re unlikely to change it through our individual efforts. To reject productivity is a worthwhile ambition but, in a market economy, it usually exacts a cost.
Whether our resolutions for the New Year are work-related or not, they should involve discerning what is actually most important to us. If you care about your job, it’s entirely reasonable to want to get better at it. If you don’t, then preserving your energy for what you want to be doing is a far better way of improving your life than promising yourself that, this year, you’re finally going to stay on top of your emails.