By Fr. Garry Richmeier, C.PP.S.
Many people make New Year’s Resolutions around January 1. It is a popular tradition, and in casual conversation people often ask each other “What is your New Year’s Resolution?” The popular media usually starts talking about it immediately after Christmas. It isn’t a bad tradition. It serves to remind people that growth and change are possible and needed. It also expresses optimism and hope for the future, that we can make changes that will make a positive difference.
The unfortunate thing about New Year’s Resolutions is that they are made around January 1, and by February 1 they have often fallen by the wayside and have been forgotten. By then, the media usually never mention it again, people stop asking about each other’s resolutions, and sometimes we can’t even remember what our resolution was.
We very much like the idea of growth and positive change. We relish the image of ourselves as healthier, or more organized, or more compassionate, or more skilled in a certain area, etc. And when we make a resolution to change ourselves to fit that image, it makes us feel like a determined, “git ’er done,” well-meaning person. It immediately feels good when we make a resolution, which may be why many people make New Year’s Resolutions year after year, even if they seldom reach the goal. Intention to accomplish something positive is good, but it is only the first of many steps needed to actually accomplish something. As Dr. Phil on TV said to one of the people on his show, “Joining a gym does not make you healthier. Exercising at the gym can make you healthier.”
So should we just avoid making New Year’s Resolutions because they don’t often work? I would say no. Like I said, the tradition can be a helpful “kick start” to making some positive changes in our life. But the secret is to start with the good intentions and positive motivation inherent in resolutions, and then design a process that will help keep those things alive as one moves through the often necessarily slow and challenging process of change. So I want to offer some ideas of how to do this.
It is important to do some planning before jumping into a New Year’s Resolution. First, choose a goal that is possible to reach. For example, I can choose a goal of running a 4-minute mile before the year is up, but I’m pretty sure that at my age and physical ability, that is an impossible goal to achieve. One has to be realistic. Something may be possible for me, but if it would take all my time or resources, leaving nothing for other things in my life, it’s not a realistic goal.
Being realistic in choosing a resolution begins with questions like “Do I have enough time, energy, and resources available to devote to this endeavor? Can it fit in well with the other life-pursuits I’m involved in, including my relationships? Is it inviting enough to keep me motivated for the long haul?”
Being realistic also means starting with a small, manageable goal. If my New Year’s resolution is to lose 25 pounds in 2 months, volunteer 3 days a week at a clothes pantry, and spend an hour in contemplative prayer every day, I may be setting myself up for failure. It is better to start with one smaller, more manageable thing. I can always do more if I’m able.
Planning to accomplish a goal for the New Year also means arranging all the practical, “nuts and bolts” stuff required. This needs to be very specific if one is to be successful. This includes identifying when (what day, time of day) you will devote to working toward the goal, arranging who will be there to help you if needed, creating reminders you will use to help you remember to do the work, and having available any equipment or other specifics you will need. You will also want to have a “plan B” for times when something prevents you from working on your goal.
Once all the planning is done, and you start working toward your goal, it is important to mark your progress as you go. Change is often a long process, and we humans don’t change overnight, so identifying small, incremental changes helps us keep motivated even if we haven’t gotten to the main goal.
Breaking up the main goal into smaller goals is often helpful. For example, if my goal is to lose 10 pounds, I can mark on my calendar each day I find I’m 1 pound lighter. This is similar to creating a building project in which one step is the foundation for the next step. Seeing even a little progress can help keep us motivated in the work. It may even be helpful to have some kind of celebration for oneself when a step in the process is achieved.
How a person looks at the process of accomplishing a New Year’s resolution is probably the biggest factor in achieving success. It is important that a person sees it as a journey/process that is 2 steps forward and 1 step back. We don’t change overnight. Change and growth is always a series of fits and starts, and expecting that with New Year’s resolutions can help a person not give up when they don’t see progress.
Also necessary is a healthy humility and patience with oneself. We are not perfect and we will fail in many endeavors because we are human. The only way to success is to forgive oneself for a failure, learn from it, and try it again. It is also important to believe that the journey toward the ultimate goal is just as important as the ultimate goal. That helps keep us going till we get there.
These are some things I’ve found helpful in carrying through with, not only New Year’s resolutions, but with any goal any other time of year. I hope you find them useful too.
All of the videos in this series can be found here: Assembly God’s Puzzle.
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[Fr. Garry Richmeier, a Precious Blood priest and spiritual director, holds a Master’s of Divinity Degree from St John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota, and a Master’s of Counseling Psychology degree from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. He is a licensed professional counselor and a licensed marriage and family therapist.]