It’s that time of the year when we all resolve to be better people, look after ourselves more, or just plain commit to doing things we have not previously had time to do. Most of us know that the resolutions we make will not be kept. By Valentine’s Day, we will have forgotten, discarded, or just plain ignored them.
To make New Year’s resolutions stick we must intentionally incorporate them into our spiritual disciplines. They should be made prayerfully and in a place of deep listening, a place where we invite the Spirit of God to speak into our lives and steer our course for the coming year.
A couple of years ago, I developed what I call the S.M.A.R.T.E.R. system. This acronym reminds me of what is important during this new season.
Specific: Be specific in setting goals. For example, instead of saying, “I want to deepen my prayer life,” set a specific goal, such as, “I want to pray ten minutes more each day.”
Measurable: Intangible goals are impossible to measure, but with measurable goals you can reward yourself, which will help you to continue attaining even bigger spiritual goals. Using prayer as an example again, when you reach five minutes a day for five days, celebrate it with a small, personal celebration. When you reach ten minutes of prayer for ten days, celebrate with a party.
Attainable: Is your goal within your ability to accomplish it? I cringe when people tell me they want to save the world or transform their city – all within three months and without any training or expertise. A more attainable goal may be to get involved in a local mission organization; or to increase giving to charities by 50%; or to take a course in city organization, social entrepreneurship, or evangelism. Attaining these kinds of goals gives great satisfaction, even if you don’t save the whole world.
Realistic: Develop a plan for attaining your goals and enlist help in achieving them. Writing down tangible, measurable action steps that keep you on track is extremely important. It helps with weighing new possibilities against current commitments and remaining aware of the time and resources that goals demand. Enlisting help can be an excellent reality check when friends say such things as “Have you thought of x?” or “When will you x?” Paying close attention to their advice is an important part of the process.
Time-bound: Timetables add urgency and reinforce accountability. Timetables should, however, be balanced with a flexibility to change and adapt. There is no such thing as failure. Setbacks are merely obstacles to be surmounted and conquered. Doing so gives us a sense of how determined we are to change our old habits.
Many resolutions require breaking with old, ingrained behaviors or attitudes. It takes time to transform habits and emotional reactions. Don’t give up because you ate a piece of cake, missed some gym time, or snapped at a coworker or sibling. Genuine and lasting change does not come easily or instantly. Real change happens over time with a series of sustained, practical actions.
Evaluate: It is essential to plan times to evaluate your progress. For new habits to stick, we must keep close tabs on our goals. As many of you know, my husband and I go on regular retreats to refocus our lives and evaluate how well we are adhering to our New Year’s resolutions. We prayerfully look back at our goals and talk about the progress we have made. We listen to discern if God wants to redirect or reform our resolutions, and we tweet our plan of action to keep us moving closer and closer toward our goals. In other words, maintaining our resolutions has become an important and serious part of our spiritual disciplines.
Remember: Most people I know who make New Year’s resolutions do nothing to remind themselves of those resolutions. Consider writing your New Year’s resolutions on a piece of paper and placing it in your Bible or journal. Read the list each day as part of your devotional time. Also, consider sharing your New Year’s resolutions with your small group or friends, and ask them to keep you accountable.
Finally, for a little advice on how to make S.M.A.R.T.E.R. goals this year, let’s finish with some thoughts from the apostle Paul:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith. Because of the joy awaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame. Now he is seated in the place of honor beside God’s throne. Think of all the hostility he endured from sinful people; then you won’t become weary and give up (Hebrews 12:1-3, NLT).