There’s nothing biblical about new year’s resolutions, which is why I’ve always felt a certain freedom about them. Largely, that freedom has been expressed by ignoring them come February 1 or so, as most people tend to do. But in the years that I don’t fail miserably, I’m always grateful for accomplishing them.

The new year is a great time to start fresh. Many of us will make familiar resolutions about diet, exercise, Bible study, prayer, and money. As the clock counts down for the new year, I wanted to offer a few thoughts about making resolutions, helping them stick, and starting them off right.

Find Your Motivation

Real change only happens if we have real motivation. What is the goal of our resolution? Why are we trying to add (or for that matter, subtract) a habit from our lives?

Many Christians begin regimens of prayer and Bible study because they have been told they should. That’s not actually a motivation—-it’s a sense of obligation. If we don’t have a vision in our minds for how that habit will transform us, our commitments will fade.

So ask yourself: Why? Why do I want to study the Word this way? How do I hope this changes my life? Here are some potential answers:

  • I want to read the whole Bible, to get a sense for the whole story of salvation.
  • I want to immerse myself in Scripture, reading big chunks to help me think more biblically.
  • I want to focus on smaller passages of Scripture, meditating on them and memorizing them so I always have them with me.

We need to cultivate desires that will sustain our disciplines—-a vision of how we want to change that is substantive enough to keep us going when the going gets hard. Last year, I wrote this article about grace-motivated dieting. In it, I argue that diet and exercise should be motivated by the benefits of health, rather than social pressures, vanity, and the idol of youth. In particular, we should think about how our health affects our ability to love and serve others.

The same goes for any other resolution. Are we motivated by guilt? Are we motivated by fear of others? Are we motivated by idolatry? Start by understanding your motivation, and then discerning whether there’s a better way to keep motivated.

Then write down your motivation. Think of it as a vision statement: “I want to be healthy so that . . . ”  or “I want to pray more so that . . . ” Keep it in front of you, and return to it whenever your will grows weak, sleeping in sounds appealing, or doughnuts start calling your name.

Make a Plan

Don’t wake up on New Year’s Day and start making resolutions. Change in our lives—-whether we’re working on a golf swing or bad habit—-usually comes slowly. When learning something like playing guitar, most teachers recommend breaking things down into little, learnable bites rather than trying to swallow whole techniques at once. Similarly, making changes in other areas will be most effective if the process advances in small steps. No one walks out the front door and runs a marathon.

For example, a few years ago, a friend of mine wanted to begin praying for an hour each day. This was a lofty goal, since he struggled to pray daily in the first place. But he made a plan to start simply—-five minutes a day—-and to extend his daily prayers by five minutes each week. Over the course of the year, a step at a time, he grew his practice. He relied on books like Ken Boa’s Face to Face to help guide his prayers along the way, and by mid-year, he was praying for an hour a day.

Again—-it’s a principle that can be applied to any resolution. Start small. Don’t try to run a marathon tomorrow, but take a good long walk. You don’t need to go on a radical, cold-turkey diet (pun intended), but you could make a plan wherein, over four or six weeks, you make changes. Each week, make one change: cut sugars, reduce carbs, eliminate fried food, and so on.

There are lots of apps that help with this. I love the YouVersion Bible app for its reading plans—-there are literally dozens of options for plans, in a variety of translations. You sign up for a plan, and it gives you a daily reminder, taking you right to where you need to be. It couldn’t be easier.

Similarly, there are great apps for health and fitness. Couch-to-5K is an app that starts with a very simple alternating walk/jog routine and daily steps it up until you’re running a 5K.

However you do it, make a plan. Write it down (preferably, in the same place you’ve written down your vision statement). Break down the changes that you want to see into small, simple steps, and allow yourself to take one small step at a time.

Start Early

The most effective thing I’ve found in recent years is to start early. Get a running start on your resolutions. Once you know what resolutions you want to make next year, you can begin them a few weeks early, and get ahead on your schedule.

Inevitably, life swallows up our time, we get behind, and that feeling of being behind schedule makes the challenge all the more difficult. If you miss a week of Bible reading because your work schedule went crazy, your kids got sick, or you simply let a few days build up, you feel like you’ve got a mountain of make-up work to do.

By starting early, you give yourself a grace-filled cushion. For instance, three weeks of a head-start on a daily Bible reading plan means 21 days of “grace” for the next year. Miss a day, no big deal. Miss a day or two a month and you’re still essentially on schedule.

So start early—-especially if you’re starting from scratch.

Be Accountable

Make your resolutions known to close friends. Tell them your motivations, and recruit their help in keeping you on target. I’m personally not a big fan of using social media for this sort of thing, but you may find it works.

Give your friends permission to ask questions and call you out when you’re drifting from your vision, and keep them in the loop when you reach milestones, so you can celebrate together.

As I said at the beginning, there’s nothing particularly biblical about these kinds of resolutions. Some saints, like Jonathan Edwards, famously lived by resolutions. His were a series of questions and vision statements that guided his life. The missionary Frank Laubach famously resolved to remember the Lord constantly, and played his “Game with Minutes” in order to do so.

We can’t manipulate the way that God sanctifies us. But we can put ourselves in a place where we’re immersed in Scripture, where we’re seeking to be better able to love and serve others, and where we’re putting to death and replacing bad habits. As the new calendar year comes around, it’s a great chance to make a commitment to these ends. So seize the opportunity; take an inventory of how you’d like to see yourself grow this year; and take simple, practical steps to help make it happen.