How to make a New Year's resolution you'll actually keep

I'm a sucker for New Year's resolutions. And like most people who share my fascination with starting the year with a bit of self-improvement, I've often found myself struggling to keep them. I've resolved to lose weight in January and ended up egg-shaped by Easter; I got eight months into a one-year blogging project and never wanted to see another computer by the end. Yet year after year, I've gamely tried again – convincing myself that my willpower will have somehow increased; that my old foes apathy and boredom might not turn up in their usual February to April window.

2016 New Year's celebration in Sydney, Australia.Reuters

I do this because despite my track record, I still firmly believe in the tradition and its usefulness. Self-improvement is a worthy aim for people of all faiths and none; for Christians it's all part of the journey of becoming more like Jesus. Ironing out our creases; improving those things we see in ourselves which we know don't represent the best of us. This is always a good thing to attempt, and January provides an intuitive moment for a fresh start. More than that, resolutions require us to develop and demonstrate self-discipline and self-control; counter-cultural, Biblical virtues which enable happiness, joy and fulfilment whatever you believe in.

And eventually, I've got a lot better at keeping them (otherwise I'd be a lousy person to write this article). A few years ago, tired of the constant cycle of good intention and failure, I thought a bit harder about how to break that sequence, and I arrived at the realisation that the chance of success is hugely impacted by how you start the journey. Here then are five ideas to help you keep New Year's Resolutions, mainly focussed around how to make them in the first place.

Be realistic

Most of us would like to be wealthier, more popular and better-looking. In my case however, I've discovered that a healthy dose of reality saves me from pain later on. I can make steps towards any of these: by using my money more wisely, allocating more time in each week to spend with friends, or start cutting down on my Indian food consumption, and I'm much more likely to do so successfully. A grand, blanket aim which will see my life turned upside-down by December will always be a long-shot by comparison.

Focus on roots instead of symptoms

Often the things we don't like about ourselves or our behaviour are actually rooted in something else. Your job might be too stressful, and that makes you angry. Or you eat badly because your life is out of balance. Or you don't have time for spiritual reflection because you're addicted to your mobile phone. Making a promise to yourself which addresses the root problem will likely have much more significant, and successful, results. In many cases, this means identifying and working on an aspect of our character which is perhaps a bit of a rough edge. That's not easy, but if we do so successfully, we'll find more changes than just that annoying symptom. For example, addressing a tendency to jealousy by resolving to become more encouraging and supportive of others won't only help to heal us; it'll have a massive impact on all those we're encouraging and naturally predispose us to being kinder in future. Virtues are like muscles after all; the more we practice them, the more they naturally become part of who we are.

Set goals instead

A resolution is often about stopping something 'bad' – so when we slip up, we feel like a failure. Instead of focusing on the negative then, create a start-of-year aim or goal which pictures you in the place you want to be by the end of it. So "I'm giving up smoking" becomes: I'll be healthier, and have stopped smoking by the end of the year." Going on a diet is replaced by a vision of you ten pounds lighter by next December. Goals are also much more flexible when we make a mistake; you can shatter that pledge to give up smoking with a single puff, but a sneaky cigarette in mid-May doesn't destroy your vision of reaching the end of the year as a non-smoker.

Consider keeping quiet

This one's really for extroverts like me: when we make a difficult decision like this, we tend to want to drag as many people into the story as possible. We convince ourselves that this helps; in fact it only increases our sense of failure when we start to drift from the plan – at which point many of us tend to bury our heads in the sand and enter a period of denial. If you can manage it, keeping a resolution secret can be incredibly rewarding; especially when people start to notice the change without knowing you've deliberately instigated it.

Call on a Higher Power

Many self-improvement strategies – including many of those used to combat addiction – include an element of recognising that we can't beat our flaws on our own. Humanity is just a bit too broken to successfully heal itself; in the Christian faith we call that the problem of sin, others just call it human nature. Prayer, meditation and self-reflection are all great strategies for keeping those promises of self-improvement. From personal experience I can say that they dramatically increase your chances of success.

The arrival of a new year always gives us a great opportunity to reflect on what we'd like to change about ourselves. For me, the New Year's Resolution isn't just a vaccuous product of festive over-consumption, but a great opportunity to initiate those changes. Bearing a few simple principles in mind – starting well, setting goals, and praying through the year – I believe you can do so successfully. Happy New Year, and happy resolution-setting.

Martin Saunders is a Contributing Editor for Christian Today and the Deputy CEO of Youthscape. You can follow him on Twitter: @martinsaunders