I don’t have a history of successful New Year’s resolutions. I count only two that have been successful in any meaningful way. The first was a weights workout resolution during college that lasted 8 months before carpal tunnel syndrome knocked me off pace for 14+ years and counting. The second was a vague but determined resolution to “be happier” the following year that had no hope of succeeding – except that God hijacked it and used it to bring me to repentance and faith in Christ by leading me through it into church attendance and being captivated by God’s word. Certainly I rejoice in this, but it wasn’t at all in line with what I had planned!
However, despite this resolution incompetence, I have found it helpful to do what was recommended to me by a friend several years ago: to set goals at the beginning of each year, in particular for spiritual growth. For a number of reasons, this has been more helpful to me than mere resolutions. And if people want to make changes at the beginning of the year, I often recommend doing the same, and this post is meant to set out some of the most helpful practices and ideas I have learned in the course of doing this.
Every Christian should be growing – the passage I preached just yesterday (2 Peter 1:3-11) makes this very clear. But it takes more than a general intention to maximize our efforts, and goals for certain activities can often be the indirect means by which our hearts are changed to become more like Christ.
Should you choose to follow this idea, here are some suggestions that may help as you seek to make changes in the upcoming year:
Measurable is usually better than non-measurable
This is no secret in the goal-setting world: it’s hard to know if you have accomplished something that isn’t measurable.
Instead of a vague goal or resolution to “be more __________”, try to set goals that will tend toward getting you closer to that subjective aim. This has to do with spiritual disciplines (or “means of grace”, if you like) – things that you know are necessary to cultivate the heart changes you want to make.
There is always the danger of mistaking your activity for your piety. An occasional reading of Jesus’ words for the Jewish leaders of his day, and going before the Lord in honest prayer, should help cure you of that.
Despite the dangers, though, it will generally be more useful to your soul to do things that are intended to grow you in grace than not to do them.
Scheduled is usually better than unscheduled
If you want to make sure you do something, you generally have to know in advance when you’re going to do it. There are reasons you don’t do it now, and those reasons don’t go away just because the last digit on the calendar flips: it might be hard; other things might be more urgent; you might forget. Therefore, chances are that if you use and keep a calendar in any way, you will have a much greater chance of doing what you schedule than what you don’t schedule.
In trying to set out what I’d like to do over the next few months, I’ve had to face the cold hard reality that there’s just not enough time on the calendar to do everything I want to do. This forces me to prioritize and think about what is really important – a helpful exercise in itself. But more than that, it saves me from the folly and disappointment of biting off more than I can chew and ending up tempted to quit because I’m not making the kind of progress I want.
If you have goals for 2017, could you show someone right now the exact times of the week/month that you will be engaging in these activities?
The old adage is certainly true: If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.
Private is usually better than public
People may want to make their goals public, under the umbrella of accountability. I understand this, and even did it last year when I encouraged those at my church to join me in reading through the Bible (I failed, many of them succeeded).
Accountability is great when it is used properly. But often what we call accountability is really only getting a credit advance on a task or a goal we may not have even started, much less finished. We tell people we are going to do something and we are tempted to pride that we would even be so godly as to pursue such a noble goal – and shouldn’t our accountability partner(s) be impressed as well!
Before you tell others about your goals, ask yourself: is it necessary for others to know? Why am I really telling them? Will this get me the reward I seek from God for pleasing him, or will I be seeking the approval of man (Matthew 6:1)? And consider erring on the side of privacy rather than publicity.
Less is often better than more
If you’re a goals veteran and you know how to crank things out, maybe you have been able to build up to a couple dozen unique goals for the upcoming year that you have a good chance of accomplishing. However, most people aren’t that way.
It’s easy to feel the pressure to change everything you could change by this point next year, especially if you are today behind where you thought you would be last year at this time – or, even worse, if you’ve built up a years-long string of goal failure.
But it’s also essential to deal in reality. It’s hard to make more than one or two major changes at a time. Actually, it’s hard to make even one major change, period! So consider trying to get one thing in place and then building to the next. In the long run, you will likely accomplish far more than if you tried to do it all at once and gave up from being overwhelmed.
Short-term is often better than long-term
I have come to find that my goals are much more likely to be kept if I keep a shorter picture in view: quarterly or even monthly. These can be year-long goals, but broken up into subsections that give more frequent encouraging feedback milestones.
Want to read through the Bible this year? Great! But why not say “I’m going to read through Exodus 40 by the end of January”? This could even encourage making even faster progress because you can see the goal in sight.
Another benefit of this approach is the ability to reevaluate things that simply aren’t working, and replace them with alternate plans, rather than simply giving up until January 1, 2018. Just think of it as getting several extra shots per year to get your resolutions right.
What do you think? What has been helpful for you? Can you share your ideas with me and with others?