“New Years resolutions: A procrastinators dream! You have twelve months to accomplish whatever you want while no one holds you accountable to it.”
Sounds right to me.
Self improvement is something that we all strive for and can encompass many aspects of our lives. While each new day is an opportunity to take on new challenges and pursue virtue to a greater degree, there are some seasons of change that trigger widespread efforts to establish goals or new disciplines for ourselves. The new year provides one of those.
God has blessed us with an aching that comes when part of our life is out of order. That aching can come in all sorts of different fashions, and may be referred to as “guilt” or something resembling a lack of completeness in our lives. It doesn’t feel good, and leaves one at a turning point where either you learn to “play through the pain” or you take some sort of corrective action. This is usually where we find the need to create a resolution or goal for ourselves. Oftentimes these can be very well-intentioned notions, either to improve one’s physical, spiritual, emotional, or social life. A few pretty common examples of the goals you might hear include:
- “I want to grow closer to God”
- “I am going to run more often”
- “I am going to tackle an addiction”
- “I am going to be less selfish”
- “I will eat out less and cook for myself more often”
- “I am going to quit drinking”
- “I am going to pray more often”
- “This year I am going to finally quit smoking”
- “I am going to keep in touch with a friend who I have lost touch with”
These are all excellent things to accomplish. However, each lacks at least one of four essential elements of using a resolution to make positive change in your life. In my experience, the most effective way of establishing and carrying out a resolution requires purpose, measure, discipline, and accountability. I will share a little bit about each.
Identify Your Purpose
The first part of any goal is basically the goal itself. This is where most resolutions get it right, providing a clear hope for what will come if the aim of the goal is met. For example, one who wants to run more often is likely doing so because they want to improve physical fitness. One who sets out to pray more often is likely doing so to improve their contact with God.
People that make wholesale changes in their lives do so because they are continuously in touch with the pain and damage caused by old habits. In order for long-term change to be effective, it is important to regularly identify with what it was like before the positive change took place. For example, I know a lot of alcoholics who have been sober for twenty, thirty, even forty years. In many cases, that is half of their life! However, these recovering drunks seem to have no problem reciting what their life was like before sobriety and make a daily routine of surrendering their lives over to the care of God. Many would say that if they lost focus of what it took to initially get them sober that they would not remain sober.
Too often I encounter people who have made changes, feel much better about themselves, and then start to think that they were perhaps over-reacting about how bad things really were. “A glass of wine wouldn’t really hurt me that much, especially with this newly-found strength and discipline I’ve established,” is the recipe for disaster and likely falling back to a place that was even worse than before. The disease of addiction is one that wants you to believe that you don’t have a disease!
A good goal is one that allows you to measure progress. In my opinion, the more specific and objective the measure, the better. For example, if your resolution is to have a closer relationship with God (which, assuming you’re Christian or any sort of theist, should be a goal of your regardless of how spiritually advanced you are), how do you measure your progress other than using your own subjective feeling of whether you are closer to God or not? While that may be the designated end result of the goal, a more deliberate and intentional goal would have a more specific means of getting there (which will also require discipline and make accountability possible). “I’m going to pray more often” is a better goal. “I’m going to pray five days a week” is better than that.
For those who are taking on large changes, like to pornography addict who seeks to stay free from pornography going forward, it is wise to take things one day at a time. Yes, this is cliché, but for good reason. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the fear that a lifetime of this kind of change is impossible. Thus, a daily commitment to keep free from addiction (in this example, pornography) for 24 hour increments can set the foundation for recovery. Let God guide the future while you do what you can with the present!
I had concerns using the word “discipline” to describe the point I want to make here, but that’s exactly what it takes to get something accomplished, whether in a spiritual, physical, social, or emotional sense. Most great things take time and continued effort to accomplish. If I wanted to get six-pack abs I would not be able to achieve that by going to the gym and doing sit-ups until my stomach is properly sculpted. That would be ridiculous. Instead, I would have to make certain exercises a regular part of my day and probably re-examine what I eat. It would take discipline. It would also take a lot of patience before I saw results (and perhaps some genetics that I did not acquire at birth).
The more specific you make your discipline or “action plan”, the more likely it will happen and the more likely you will make it part of your routine. My experience tells me that when you “make time” for something it is much more likely to get done than when you “find time” for something.
Let’s re-explore the example of setting a goal to pray more. I mentioned that “I’m going to pray five days a week” offers greater quantifiable measure than “I’m going to pray more often.” Building on that, setting the goal of “I’m going to pray for fifteen minutes before bed five times per week” is even better. (Note: When I say “better”, I’m not saying that praying five days per week is the gold standard for prayer regiment or that praying at night is better than other alternatives. Rather, I’m saying that the wording and specific outline of action is recommended over using general terms or plans.) These disciplines or action plans can grow in specificity over time and can even develop into something greater than you originally intended.
Accountability in the Christian life can keep us on the right path, encourage us, and give us an objective ear to bounce things off of. It’s why Christ sent his disciples out in pairs. Tied in with this is community and fellowship, a key pillar of making large changes to one’s lifestyle. Knowing that there are people who have been through what you are going through offers a sense that you can do it as well. Stay close to these people as things will continue to come up that will need to be examined. Seek one or two people to walk very close to that are willing to see you through the process.
Completing an objective on your own without anyone asking you about your progress is the easier, softer way. It’s also the way that is more likely to fail, as with most utopian New Years resolutions.
I recommend bi-lateral accountability, where the person who is holding you accountable to what you are hoping to improve on is also being held accountable by you for the same thing or something else that they are looking to see progress on in their life. There are certainly some forms of accountability that are more effective than others. Here is a link to a few great building blocks of Christian accountability relationships from CovenantsEyes, a company that specializes in internet accountability. Here is an article that compares effective and ineffective Christian accountability patterns.
As noted above, accountability encourages us to stay true to the disciplines we’ve set for ourselves. It is also improved by having measurable data that can be shared simply with another person. This also makes possible success rate data and the ability to track improvement. Another great thing about accountability is that you can bounce ideas off each other and discuss what is working and what is not working. “I’m too tired right before bed so fifteen minutes of prayer at night actually turns into three minutes of prayer and seven hours of sleep,” may be feedback one gives another that is struggling keeping to their committed disciplines.
One effective means of bringing all these facets and pillars of progress together is by establishing a framework of the most important areas of my life and making a few well-defined goals for each. This may include my spiritual, physical, emotional/mental, and social goals. Putting this stuff on paper makes committing to these goals more effective and makes accountability much easier.
Be sure to include things that bring you joy and keep you fully alive, and pick yourself up when you do miss the mark. It’s bound to happen. However, we’re looking for progress, not perfection!
“Every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future” – Oscar Wilde