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Promises, promises: Three writers on their resolutions

It's that time again when many of us decide to change our lives for the better with a New Year's resolution. But how many of us will succeed? Or is it just those seasonal tipples talking?

We all do it every New Year's Day: swear to lay off the cigarettes and the drink, take out that much-talked-about gym subscription and generally put all the bad stuff behind us.

And, every year, by mid-January, all our good intentions have turned to so much dust. New Year's resolutions date back to the ancient Babylonians (they promised their gods to repay their debts). The Romans named January after the god Janus for the same reason.

But the chances that you'll stick at it are pretty dismal.

Research shows that most resolutions begin to drop off after as little as a week and only about 12% survive the year.

We ask three Belfast Telegraph writers for the New Year's resolution they stuck to (and how they did it) as well as the one they wish they'd kept - but didn't.

'I've found happiness by helping others, but won't give up my tipple'

By Frances Burscough

Resolutions at New Year are like sprouts at Christmas: they're obligatory. Very few really enjoy them; even fewer understand why you have to have them; but you just get on with it for the sake of Auld Lang Syne (whoever he was), because it's a tradition.

Over the years, I've failed miserably with most of mine, year in, year out. But, last year, I actually succeeded with one resolution and it's still going strong.

This was to become a volunteer at a homeless shelter and practise what I'd preached for years to my kids about helping those less fortunate than us.

My first step in achieving this was to contact my friend, Cormac, who works for the Welcome Organisation in Belfast. He invited me to meet up with the directors and to have a chat about what I'd be able to do and how much time I could give.

After I had been shown around the centre, had an interview with staff and filled in the application forms (including a PSNI security check), I was then ready and able to do what I'd set out to do, which was quite simply to roll up my sleeves and get stuck in. I'd arrived just as lunch was being served to the day's clients, upwards of 80 men and women of all ages and appearances, all of whom had that one thing in common - they were vulnerable for one reason or another and in need of help.

All of the food that was being served had been donated by supermarkets, shops or individuals. It was so heartening to see and really does help restore your faith in human nature.

So, since then, I have handed out hundreds of hot dinners, washed thousands of pots, peeled a mountain of spuds, made countless sandwiches and gallons of tea and coffee. I've also met some really inspirational people, too, and I'm not just talking about the staff or volunteers.

It has confirmed what I have always believed to be the truth: the same thing could have happened - or could still happen - to any one of us, had our lives taken another path, or our circumstances been slightly different.

As for the resolutions I've failed, well, there are so many to choose from. But the most consistent one I fail time and time again every January is to restrict alcohol intake to weekends and occasional nights out.

The reason? Now, don't get me wrong. I'm neither a closet alcoholic, nor a binge drinker. But I do like a tiny tipple before I go out of an evening, or a slightly larger one if I decide to stay home and work instead, just to get the creative juices flowing, or a nightcap before I go to bed.

But it's not entirely my fault. I blame Christmas consumer pressure, combined with the Delia/Nigella effect, which dictates that not only must your pantry be groaning with the weight of festive fayre, but your drinks cabinet must also be well-stocked and overflowing with all the correct bottles of booze.

So, naturally, being the domestic goddess that I am, every year I feel obliged to buy one bottle each of Bailey's Irish Cream, Croft port, Harvey's Bristol Cream, Warnink's Advocaat, Tia Maria and Hennessy Cognac - not for myself, you understand, but to offer to all the guests and legions of impromptu Christmas callers.

And, this year, there weren't any, except for the Salvation Army carol singers.

So, as usual, when all the festive fayre had been and gone, I naturally had to turn my attention to the drink. The body was willing, but the flesh was weak and, well, the spirit was a bit too strong.

If only Oxfam had an off-sales department.

  • Frances Burscough's column appears in Weekend magazine every Saturday

'I'd stub out ciggies, but lack willpower'

By Una Brankin

A north African man sat beside me on the Tube in London recently and, after some idle chit-chat, he rose to get off at the next stop and said: "Don't forget, old things are passed away and all things become new, if you trust in God."

It's a comforting thought at the New Year, especially for anyone with a troubled soul. But when it comes to resolutions, I'm afraid most of my bad habits have failed to pass away and, instead of becoming renewed, I've ended up making exactly the same empty promises 12 months later.

One February, I joined a gym in Dublin with an exotic low-lit pool in the basement. I swam in it once and didn't even go near the exercise machines. My excuse: there was a whiff of the sewers below ground level.

Foolishly, I kept up my €50 monthly membership, thinking it would give me the incentive to go back. How these places must scoff at us deluded types all the way to their banks.

I have also given generously to a fitness club in Belfast without ever troubling their trainers for guidance around the torture chamber other people call a gym. I did go twice and did mean to book the big, chunky strongman for a training session.

The problem was that my boyfriend at the time decided to get fit and come with me and I couldn't let him see me flushed and sweaty and make-up-free on the running machine.

A decade on, and by then engaged, we both pledged to give up smoking after a Christmas of partying. I've always been what used to be referred to as a social smoker, whereas my husband can be hardcore when it comes to his roll-ups, so I decided that I'd support his efforts.

We lasted a full six months, then went to a wedding on the Greek island of Kefalonia, where we met a crowd of old friends who only smoked on holidays (or so they claimed).

Halfway through the week, we got bored of not smoking and, unfortunately, kept puffing on for the rest of the summer ... and the autumn ... and the winter, until the next New Year's Eve.

Ever since, the other half has managed to stay off the rollies for up to nine months at a time, but I have convinced myself that the odd ciggie with a glass of wine won't do me any harm.

I remain horrified at my lack of willpower, however, and wish I could have kept up that very nearly successful resolution.

I don't care about not going to those ugly impersonal gyms; my only regret is losing all those membership fees.

If all the money from non-active gym members was gathered and given to Ebola relief, Bob Geldof would never have had to record that last Band Aid effort.

Speaking of which, one annual pledge I'm glad I kept up was giving a regular donation to Concern. A small monthly direct debit made that easy, though, and as it required no willpower, it wasn't really a resolution.

There is a real one I'm truly glad to have kept. This time last year, with the thought of facing a big birthday in May, I began to think about two friends from my days at Queen's University, one from the undergraduate years, the other from a post-grad scholarship, and resolved to get in touch with them.

I hadn't seen the first one, Roberta Ferson, since graduation, but I clearly remembered her birthday being June 6. So, on the 100th anniversary of D-Day, we sat on a lawn in her hometown of Upperlands sipping champagne, in stitches at our recalled student antics.

And, six months later I did the same with Joan Fowler, from the Masters class, over dinner in the Beechlawn Hotel in Dunmurry.

That resolution was the best and the most meaningful one to keep - ever - and I'd recommend it over becoming a robotic gym-bunny anytime.

  • Una Brankin is a journalist and writer

'I vowed to overcome my boyhood shyness'

By Alex Kane

Given how often I now appear on radio, television and assorted panels, I think most people would be surprised to know that there was a time when I was congenitally shy. I would turn scarlet and drip with sweat if I had to ask anyone anything.

Other than very close family and a few friends, I was incapable of holding normal conversations. I avoided social occasions.

But I was still very opinionated - albeit quietly and mostly to myself. There were so many things I wanted to say, so many views that I wanted people to hear.

It was a school report that changed my life. It arrived in mid-December 1970 (I was 15) and contained this comment: "Alex writes very well and has exceptionally mature arguments for someone his age, but he needs to find the confidence to air his views rather than just write them."

So on January 1, 1971, I wrote down a resolution and pinned it to the inside door of my wardrobe: "Stand Up. Speak Up. Or be ignored."

Later that morning, I walked around our fields - we let them to a farmer friend - and addressed the cattle. I say "addressed", but I actually just read them the opening few pages of Scandal In Bohemia (the first of Arthur Conan Doyle's 56 Sherlock Holmes short stories to be published in The Strand Magazine).

Their response was one of incomprehension, punctuated by moos and poops, but at least they stayed around me.

I spent a lot of time in front of the full-length mirror we had on our landing, learning how I would look to others as they looked at me. You should do it some time - you'll be surprised how many quirks you discover.

And I also realised that I was going to find it enormously difficult to read a speech and "work" an audience at the same time - so I developed the habit of writing and then memorising.

I also forced myself to go into shops and ask for things that I hoped they wouldn't have - because I didn't want to buy them.

Thinking back about it as I write this, I must have sounded like a German tourist - with a reasonably good grasp of English - because I spoke slowly and loudly, afraid of making a basic mistake, yet wanting to be understood.

School was still difficult, because it's not easy to try and reinvent yourself in front of the most critical audience of all - your peers and classmates.

What helped me was the fact that I have a sense of humour (honestly, I do) and a fondness for appalling puns and it soon became obvious that people were more willing to listen if you had one-liners ready to toss into the conversation.

At the end of March - and without telling anyone - I entered an inter-schools debating competition to be held in May. I came second; which was a shock to me and a bigger shock to the headmaster, who had turned up with the school debating team in tow and didn't know why I was even there. "I'm doing what you suggested in my last end-of-term report, Sir."

There have been many other resolutions down the years, but that's the one that made the lasting difference, because I saw it through.

It was a challenge to myself and I never spoke to anyone about it until that day in May.

My resolution in 2000 was to produce Stormont - The Musical (I've always loved the razzle dazzle of Broadway and the West End). But I don't play an instrument, I can't write music and I don't like collaborating with others, so it hasn't ever got off the ground.

Mind you, I had thought of reworking the idea as a broad farce. But 108 MLAs and a dozen or so political parties have beaten me to it.

  • Alex Kane is a writer and commentator

So, what will you be resolving to do this year ...?

The 10 most popular  resolutions are:

  • Improve physical well-being: eat healthier food, lose weight, exercise more, drink less alcohol, quit smoking
  • Improve career: perform better at current job, get a better job, start your own business
  • Improve mental well-being: be more positive, laugh more often, enjoy life
  • Improve education: study a foreign language, learn to play a musical instrument
  • Volunteer to help others: practise life skills, give to charity, volunteer to work part-time for an NGO
  • Improve finances: clear credit cards, save more, make small investments
  • Get along better with people: improve social skills, enhance social intelligence, make new friends
  • Settle down: get engaged/married, start a family
  • Try foreign foods: discovering new cultures
  • Pray more: be closer to God, be more spiritual

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