So You Forgot Your New Year’s Resolution… What Now?

Here’s the key point: if your resolution doesn’t have failure built into the plan then you will probably fail to keep the resolution.

Some people make New Year’s resolutions and others don’t. Some forget their New Year’s resolutions before February comes. Some realize two weeks into January that they forgot to make any resolutions and feel they missed an opportunity.

So are those who opt out of New Year’s resolutions the rational ones? I’ve been tempted to think so. But recently a friend posted a quotation from G. K. Chesterton and it caused me to think differently:

“The object of a New Year is not that we should have a new year. It is that we should have a new soul and a new nose; new feet, a new backbone, new ears, and new eyes. Unless a particular man made New Year resolutions, he would make no resolutions. Unless a man starts afresh about things, he will certainly do nothing effective.”

I don’t understand everything Chesterton says here (Why should any resolution depend on making New Year’s resolutions? [but see note below]), but it does give me pause about scoffing at the custom. Some holidays are meant to commemorate important facets of life. While one cause of Mother’s Day and Father’s day is an economic need to sell greeting cards, another is to commemorate the value of fathers and mothers. Likewise, New Year’s Day serves more than one purpose. While New Year’s Day is used to track the years and dates by calendar, it has also become a commemoration of the value of a fresh start in human life.

Human beings need to pull themselves together and start anew in order to get better.

So let’s say you normally make New Year’s resolutions but this year you got caught up in holiday drama at the end of 2018 and it distracted you. Now you realize that it is over a week into January and you haven’t even thought of what improvements you should make. Well, so what? The point of the holiday is to remind you of your need to become a better person. It’s not the date by which you MUST begin!

In other words, it is rational to use the customary holiday to remind you to improve yourself, but it is superstitious and irrational to treat the holiday as a deadline to begin a resolution. That would actually do more to discourage people than to encourage better habits.

“Failure” to “keep” a resolution involves a similar misunderstanding. The object of New Year’s Day is not to get a “perfect” year with an unbroken record. Human behavior doesn’t change overnight. You don’t wake up with new habits in 2019 because you wished for them at bedtime on New Year’s Eve 2018.

The effort required to adopt a new behavior or habit isn’t a session of intense “willing” it to happen. It takes the diligent tracking of your behavior over time and a commitment to keep trying despite failure.

That is why not planning for failure is commonly fatal to a New Year’s resolution.

And it betrays a wrong mindset. You are basically saying to yourself and God, “Unless I can be a disciplined writer, or healthy eater, or swole gym rat, a daily intellectual reader, or regular early riser, a faithful prayer warrior morning and evening, or a weekly Bible verse memorizer, etc, then there’s no point in bothering. And by “no point in bothering,” you mean you should be left alone to remain the subject of inertia as your unchanging (or, actually, slowly deteriorating) self.

The soul of the sluggard craves and gets nothing,

while the soul of the diligent is richly supplied.

Wealth gained hastily will dwindle,

but whoever gathers little by little will increase it.

Proverbs 13:4, 11 (ESV).

So don’t get discouraged about imperfect improvement. Track what change you are able to make and then make another, better resolution when the time comes. Or whenever you think it is appropriate.

[A reader contacted me and suggest that “a particular man” means a certain type of man. There are some men who won’t make resolutions unless prodded by a tradition like New Year’s Day. That seems obvious now, but I didn’t think of that option when I read it.]

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