Like most people, my history with New Year's Resolutions is less than spectacular. I've gone on diets in January only to eat three times as much to compensate in February. I've decided to run every day, and stopped after a single attempt; I've resolved to write a novel, and remained forever on the first page. I'm fairly confident that if I made a resolution on New Year's Eve not to touch a cigarette next year, I'd be on 40 a day by the middle of next week. And I don't even smoke.
There's something about the idea of New Year's resolutions which make them hugely compelling... but only for about 24 hours. The first sense that we might be 'failing' or just finding it difficult seems to be enough to destabilise the whole endeavour. Partly that's because our resolutions are often based around giving up vices or other things that we might naturally compelled to keep doing – from smoking and drinking to making bad relationship decisions. But it's also because they feel a bit legalistic and arbitrary, as if we're just picking a date after which we will no longer make that mistake, or from which we'll suddenly start practicing that virtue.
In truth, life just isn't that neat. We don't put our vices behind us overnight, nor can we suddenly turn over a new leaf. So instead of New Year's resolutions, we might be better of with an approach to self-improvement that takes a more realistic view of how people change: slowly and with a few setbacks along the way.
So, instead of making grand pronouncements on New Year's Eve, why not try something else this year? Rather than making resolutions, why not set goals? It's a subtle but important shift, which takes the emphasis away from instant, overnight character change, and switches it to longer-term development. Essentially you take the same hopes for the future, but you alter the terms on which you'll evaluate change.
A New Year's resolution says: I'm going to give up smoking today. A new year goal says: I'll be a non-smoker by the end of this year. A New Year's resolution might be: I'm going to read the Bible every day for the next year. A new year goal says you'll have finished the book by the end of December. This simple change of perspective liberates your dreams for the year ahead, and stops them from being rooted in a single moment of change, then prevents them from being derailed by a single moment of failure.
If you're going to set a goal, then the SMART formula used in business goal-setting can be quite useful. The acronym suggests that aims should be Specific (i.e. I'm going to write a novel, rather than just 'write something'), Measurable (I'm going to lose ten pounds), and Achievable (so not, I'm going to visit Mars). Then traditionally you might choose 'realistic', but I prefer my friend Tom's version – Risky – partly because creative risks often lead to the most amazing change, and partly because he planted a church on that basis and it's now thriving and growing. Finally, the 'T' stands for Time-bound, and that one's kind of defined for you by the 365 days ahead.
It might seem like a tiny switch in your thinking, but I've already seen it work. Try setting goals instead of making resolutions, and liberate yourself from that sinking feeling as you reach for a doughnut, cigarette or trashy romance novel on the fifth of January. Most importantly, this approach is much more in line with how God seems to work in and with us. He rarely does instant change, preferring instead to help us on a bit of winding path of becoming more like his Son. This year, with a few prayers and a bit of resolve, why not embark on a long-term journey, rather than seeking a quick fix?