I love New Year’s resolutions.
Well, I love making New Year’s resolutions. In the waning days of December, I whip out my Moleskine notebook eager to dream up commitments for the year ahead.
Exercise five times a week.
Stick to the budget.
Read my Bible every day.
When I finish recording these goals, I’m almost jealous of my future self. He’s going to be so spiritual. And skinny!
Then January happens, and I find that making resolutions is much easier than keeping them. What started in a burst of excitement ends in quiet disappointment, a sad liturgy of willpower failures that repeats every year.
At least I’m not alone.
By February 80 percent of us have stopped jogging, started sleeping in, or jumped headfirst back into whatever bad habits we promised to break.
Why? That’s what I’ve been on a mission to find out. For the past year, I’ve read everything I can get my hands on about self-control and have interviewed a variety of experts on the topic. I’ve looked at both the science and spirituality behind why we fail to live up to our lofty expectations. Why do we find it so difficult to keep our resolutions?
Part of the reason, I’m convinced, involves some strategic blunders.
1. Overestimate Your Willpower
About 20 years ago, researchers discovered something fascinating about willpower. In a landmark study, participants were given a geometry puzzle to work on. The puzzle was impossible to solve, but the researchers wanted to test how long the participants would struggle with the task before giving up.
Before taking the test, participants waited in a room with freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. One group was free to eat them; the other was forbidden from snacking. When it came time to work on the puzzle, the cookie-eaters toiled for 20 minutes on the puzzle. The cookie-resisters, meanwhile, lasted only eight minutes before calling it quits.
Why the dramatic difference?
The researchers concluded that resisting the cookies had drained their willpower. When it came time to solve a complicated puzzle, their reserves were already low. The study—and hundreds of others since—showed that willpower is a finite resource, one that depletes quickly.
When I’m making resolutions, I feel like a superhero. Temptations will bounce off me like bullets off Superman’s chest. My resolve won’t waver.
Of course such findings merely illustrate what the Bible teaches us about our nature—that we’re fallen, finite creatures. I think of Jesus’s words to his disciples when he caught them napping on the eve of his crucifixion: “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matt. 26:41).
Somehow I forget this reality. When I’m making resolutions, I feel like a superhero. Temptations will bounce off me like bullets off Superman’s chest. My resolve won’t waver. Yet that delusional thinking actually sets me up for failure. It leads me to set large goals and lots of them. Then when the year starts, I quickly exhaust my paltry willpower reserves. In a cruel twist of irony, attempting to change multiple behaviors at once guarantees I won’t change any.
Part of the problem with New Year’s resolutions is that they’re resolutions, plural. The wiser approach: identify one modest change and focus on that until it becomes a habit.
Your willpower is limited. Plan accordingly.
2. Go It Alone
Recently, I struck up a conversation with an older man at the airport as we awaited our flight. I learned he was a recovering alcoholic who’d been clean for years. When I praised his self-control, he demurred.
“Self-control is important,” he said. “But if you just rely on self-control, you’re dead. You need a community around you. I know alcoholics who haven’t had a drop for 40 years and still go to the AA meetings.”
We need each other. When it comes to resolutions, lone rangers are dead rangers.
“You need a community around you.” I think that’s true, and not just for alcoholics. Whether your goal is to stay sober or start a new spiritual discipline, you weren’t designed to go it alone. You need support and encouragement. The idea of a solitary saint may be appealing, but it isn’t scriptural. Instead, the Bible speaks of people refining each other “as iron sharpens iron” (Prov. 27:17) and “spurring each other on to love and good deeds” (Heb. 10:24).
Most resolutions (at least the worthwhile ones) demand breaking the inertia of bad habits and forging new routines. That doesn’t happen without help. So share your goals with friends who will keep you accountable. We need each other. When it comes to resolutions, lone rangers are dead rangers.
3. Leave God Out
When I’ve set New Year’s resolutions in the past, God hasn’t always entered the equation. I’m embarrassed to admit that, but it’s true. I don’t remember praying about my goals (even the spiritual ones!), or asking for divine empowerment. I failed to reflect on how the resolutions related to my identity as a Christian. I just sort of made them—then tried to bootstrap my way to success.
That’s a massive mistake. Keeping resolutions takes a lot of self-control. While we may think self-control is all on us (it’s self-control, after all), the Bible describes it as a fruit of the Spirit, something that grows in our lives when we’re connected to God (Gal. 5:23). When we neglect our relationship with God, and fail to align our goals with his purposes, this vital fruit withers.
In the end it’s grace—not guilt—that enables us to lead holy, healthy lives.
Even social scientists know that getting spiritual about our goals is smart. Researchers tell us that “sanctified goals” (objectives that people believe have spiritual significance) have tremendous power. According to Michael McCullough, a psychologist who specializes in the study of religion and self-control:
The belief that God has preferences for how you behave and the goals you set for yourself has to be the granddaddy of all psychological devices for encouraging people to follow through with their goals.
The phenomenon doesn’t only apply to spiritual pursuits. As Baylor psychologist Sarah Schnitker explained to me,
Sanctification of even mundane goals changes the way people engage in goal pursuit. Take a goal, say being a good parent. It’s not necessarily a spiritual goal, but if you imbue that goal with sacred meaning, and say that God cares about this calling, you pursue goals related to that role with more effort.
If you see your resolutions in the light of spiritual reality, you’re far more likely to keep them.
4. Wallow in Guilt
If you’re like me, you’ve been there. It’s February, and your once-shiny resolutions have become, yet again, a source of lingering shame. The tendency can be to wallow in guilt and self-loathing, especially if your broken resolutions involved refraining from certain sins. You might think this guilt would lead to better behavior, but of course, it does just the opposite. I’ve already messed up, you reason, so what’s the point of even trying now?
Researchers actually coined a term for this tendency. They call it the “What-the-Hell Effect.” Basically, it means that after messing up, we tend to mess up even more. Our guilt leads to hopelessness, spurring even worse behavior.
Thankfully as Christians, we know just how to stop this vicious circle: forgiveness. “If we confess our sins, he is able and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). No matter how profound our failures, God gives a fresh start. That’s good news because in the end it’s grace—not guilt—that enables us to lead holy, healthy lives. That’s true on January 1—and every other day of the year.