A chance for new beginnings and making life improvements. A clean slate to start over. That’s what so many of us long for and what the new year seems to offer. The tradition of making New Year’s resolutions has been popular for quite a while. There’s evidence that the ancient Babylonians more than 4,000 years ago were using the beginning of their new year to make promises to their gods. The Romans adopted that practice, as well as Medieval knights renewing their chivalric vows. Later, Protestants started holding New Year’s Eve watch services to pray and read scripture as they committed themselves to renewed efforts of living out their Christian faith.*
Today, New Year’s Resolutions are pretty much a secular practice. Rather than seeing them as vows to a deity, most people now make promises to themselves. From what I’ve read, around 45% of Americans make resolutions at the beginning of each year. However, 80% of those who do, give up after the first week. Around 8% of those who take that first step at the beginning of the year end up achieving their goals. It appears that few of us are able to keep the promises we make to ourselves.
New Habits are Hard
Why are personal goals so often not met? For one, we tend to focus on the areas of our lives where we know some kind of change is needed. But we feel little, if any, motivation to actually ‘pay the price’ and do anything about it. I look at myself in the mirror and decide I need to lose some weight. But my immediate alarm over the poor shape I’m in recedes when I see the plate of Christmas cookies sitting on the table. Motivation is the engine for change. Tapping a reason for losing weight that stirs something more than momentary satisfaction to look good in the mirror is an important key. I need to know myself and what makes me tick.
Another reason personal goals are so regularly abandoned is that we try to go at them alone. Encouragement, support, and accountability are necessary for even the most independent souls. Involving others increases the likelihood that we’ll actually follow through.
And what’s the result of setting a goal that you don’t really want to tackle with no plan for support or accountability? Failure. Though it can be a powerful teacher and motivator at times, for many of us failure just makes us not want to set anymore goals. We easily rationalize and settle.
Establishing a Resolution that Can Work
Many are aware of the acronym S.M.A.R.T that can help with fashioning goals that have a good chance of being reached. If you see the need to make changes in your life and are thinking about resolutions for the New Year, I recommend passing them through this grid before committing.
SPECIFIC – Too many times I have been overly general when stating what I want to accomplish. As a follower of Jesus, “I want to grow spiritually in 2021” is a worthy goal. But what will it look like when I achieve this? How will I even know that my spiritual self has matured or developed in a positive way? A more specific goal that surely could lead to spiritual growth might be “I want to pray more,” or “I want to study the Bible more.”
MEASURABLE – Yet to have a better chance at success, I need to know how I’m going to define “more.” Of course, I want to exceed what I’m presently doing, but how much beyond? Goals that work have a built-in concrete way of determining when it has been reached. A number or quantity needs to be woven into it. “I want to set aside at least one hour a day for focused prayer,” or “I want to read 10 chapters from the Bible each day.”
ATTAINABLE – Typically, I start out aspiring for an extremely high ideal. Jesus asked His sleepy disciples why they couldn’t focus for an hour of prayer the night He was arrested (Matthew 26:40). I want to be better than that! Unfortunately, overly ambitious goals almost always fail or get abandoned. What is a realistic number for the season of life I’m in now? What would be a reasonable next step toward my ideal? I need to consider unavoidable obstacles or circumstances that would prevent me from following through. In addition, I must ask myself if this goal depends on anyone else’s choices, and structure it so that it depends only on what I choose to do. “I want to set aside at least 15 minutes for focused prayer each day in the morning,” or “I want to read at least one chapter from the Bible each day.”
RELEVANT – Do I care about this goal enough to make it a priority? The question of motivation must be honestly answered. I have to admit that plans for general, unstructured times of prayer in the past have rarely had consistent success in my schedule. I have a history of starting ambitious Bible-reading plans but rarely finishing them. However, I have felt a lack of personal worship in my life since COVID hit. A renewed focus on worship using the Psalms has stirred a new level of interest within me. But then I also have to ask myself what I am willing to let go of to create space in my daily schedule to do this? What else might I have to cut out to make room for this discipline? “I want to set aside at least 15 minutes each morning, before my wife wakes up, for going through the Psalms and letting them guide me through my personal worship.”
TIME-SPECIFIC – The best goals will not work if I have no time parameters set. When am I going to start this new morning rhythm? When will this be an established habit? Or, for how long am I going to expect myself to do this? I can become my own worst enemy and accuser if I’m not specific and realistic with the time expectations. “For this particular goal, I want to start January 1st and then reevaluate it April 1st. That way I can determine if I want to continue in the same way or change some of the specifics.”
As mentioned above, I must humbly admit that I need help from outside myself to keep this going. Accountability works here when I invite another person to regularly ask how I’m doing in my steps toward this goal. Or I could ask someone to join me in the pursuit (of course they must determine their personal motivation). Who might that be? Have I involved God in establishing this resolution? Admitting I need help outside myself is a highly valuable component in making a SMART goal that works.**
I don’t want to stay the same or get stuck in a pattern that holds me back from what God has for me (read Choosing to Get Unstuck). A thoughtful goal that I’m motivated to pursue could be what I need to move forward. And of course, talking it over with God could help clarify what is important to pursue and make it more than a feeble promise to myself.
May the New Year bring fresh opportunities for growth in your relationship with our Savior. And may you experience God’s grace in such a way to courageously step out into the unique things He has for you.
*Search “History of New Year’s resolutions” online, and you might be surprised how much pops up with some interesting suggestions.
**If you are serious about pursuing a goal and find yourself unsure who can help, consider working with a qualified life coach who is trained to provide guidance in discovering motivation and providing accountability (see Coaching with Jeff).