Have you made your New Year's resolutions yet? One day in, have you managed to keep them all? It's a serious question, since we know from bitter experience that New Year's resolutions seem to disappear faster than a cold turkey sandwich. Here are seven questions to help you think through your resolutions for the year to come.
1. Is this the right time? "There is a season for everything under the sun" (Ecclesiastes 3:1).
When I was running a squash league at the gym I went to, I discovered something shocking about how gyms work: they run on the membership fees of those who never attend. Only around a third of the paid-up members ever attended regularly and many of the no-shows had signed up in January. Gyms usually see something like 50 per cent of their new business for the year in January, but 80 per cent of these have stopped attending by the second week of February.
The reason for that is, in the Western calendar, January is not the natural time to make changes. We have not had a long break from our occupation; we have not had time and space to re-evaluate our lives. That usually comes in August, which means September is the real start to the new year for many people. So, if you are not feeling very resolved, why not put a note in your diary to make a resolution in nine months' time?
2. Are you ready for change? "Repent and believe the good news" (Mark 1:15).
The last time we moved house, I noticed that I found a lot of things about daily living annoying and exhausting. The silliest example was to do with our curtains. The previous owners obviously had a thing about fancy curtains with pelmets and pull cords. To open or close the curtains you could not just yank them – you had to find the cord, pull it to open the curtain, and then use the tie-back to secure it. I felt I was frittering my life away with all this cord pulling.
Now, though, I rather enjoy this routine. So what was different when we had first moved in? It represented a change to daily living, and change can feel exhausting even in the simple things of life. If you are going to change something this New Year, be ready for it to take emotional energy. If you don't have that energy, you might soon find change is just too demanding.
3. What will you stop doing? "Be still and know that I am God" (Psalm 46:10).
Many New Year's resolutions fail because we are just trying to pack yet another thing into our already hectic schedules. One of the most helpful writers on time management (which is really about self management) is Mark Forster. He notes that we fail to get things done because we never give a task "sufficient focused attention" and the reason for that is very often that we are over-committed. To do more, sometimes we need to aim for less.
So, if you have resolved to do something new this year, what are you going to stop doing to give you the space to tackle the new thing properly?
4. Will you be encouraged? "I never stop giving thanks to my God because of you" (Ephesians 1:16).
Management theory tells us that our goals ought (amongst other things) to be 'stretching'. That might sound like good advice, but when does 'stretching' become 'breaking'?
I am always wanting to improve my language skills, and I came across a great website called Duolingo. I wanted to do well, so I set myself a stretching goal for each day. Sometimes I made it, sometimes I didn't. But when life was busy, the days I didn't make my goal started to outnumber the days I did, until it petered out altogether. Then I did something radical: I reduced my goal to the minimum possible. It was very easy to reach, taking just five minutes, so every day I got an encouraging message 'You have reached your goal! Well done!' Net result? I am studying much more than I did – and on average I am easily exceeding my previous 'stretching' goal!
5. Do you have a 'change buddy'? "Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds" (Hebrew 10:24).
Something else that has encouraged me in my language study is a little feature on the bottom right of the page which shows how well my friends are doing. It might just be my competitive spirit, but when I see someone else is making progress, it encourages me to do the same.
One of the slogans for feminists in recent years has been "If you can't see it, you can't be it." In other words, for many women, if they cannot see other women being role models in particular arenas, it is much harder to imagine themselves in those positions. In fact, that is true for all of us. If someone else is doing the thing we aspire to in our resolutions, it is much easier to keep going with this new commitment. So find a 'change buddy' who will share your New Year commitment – and encourage each other to keep it.
6. Do you want to change? "Be transformed by the renewing of your mind" (Romans 12:2).
"To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often." This saying is usually attributed to the leader of the Oxford Movement in the 19th century, John Henry Newman. In another version it is attributed to Winston Churchill.
Both are pointing out a key truth about life: if we never change, if we are stuck in a rut, then we will never grow to maturity – and in fact we will miss out on the good things God has for us.
7. What is God calling you to change? "He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus" (Philippians 1:6).
For any Christian, the ultimate motive to make resolutions which will change our lives comes from what God is already doing in us. Change does not simply come through gritting our teeth and trying harder. Real change comes from being open to the work of change God wants to do in us by his Spirit.
I constantly find that the changes that stick and make a difference are the ones where I was convinced God was calling me to change and to grow. This has even been enough to make me leave the security of employment, up sticks and move to a different part of the country – on more than one occasion.
Perhaps resolving to listen to God for the change he wants to bring is the best resolution we can make.
Revd Dr Ian Paul is Honorary Assistant Professor at the University of Nottingham, Associate Minister at St Nic's, Nottingham and Managing Editor of Grove Books Ltd. His award-winning blog is at www.psephizo.com