Have you ever made a New Year’s Resolution that you kept?

“Almost half of us make a commitment to making a positive change in our lives for the new year.” That’s what the evidence indicates, anyway, according to Dr Mike Evans in this brilliant video. He explains why making resolutions to change behaviour is approaching ten times more effective when done at the start of a new year.

So, if I can alliterate for a moment, resolutions work at New Year because they are made positively, publicly, and pro-actively. Positively because the context of a new year gives you optimism about what’s possible in the future while freeing you from the bonds of the past. Publicly because you are open to discussing your goals and seeking support from others. Pro-actively because you plan ahead the steps you will take to make a change and so come prepared for the challenge of breaking habits or establishing new ones.

But there is a fourth essential element of a successful resolution that is often overlooked. By way of illustration, I’ll call upon a veritable Titan among people who resolve things: Jonathan Edwards. Edwards was the original American fire-and-brimstone preacher and one of the great thinkers of that nation. He made seventy resolutions that guided his life. (God needed only ten commandments, so Edwards must have been quite the teacher’s pet at Sunday School.)

Some of Edwards’s resolutions wouldn’t be too far out of place on an inspirational poster:

6. Resolved, to live with all my might, while I do live.

Others make sound advice for students of theology:

11. Resolved, when I think of any theorem in divinity to be solved, immediately to do what I can towards solving it, if circumstances don’t hinder.

But altogether, they indicate strongly that Edwards would have made pretty poor company at a party:

9. Resolved, to think much on all occasions of my own dying, and of the common circumstances which attend death.

10. Resolved, when I feel pain, to think of the pains of martyrdom, and of hell.

38. Resolved, never to speak anything that is ridiculous, sportive, or matter of laughter on the Lord’s day.

If your resolutions for the new year seem tame by comparison, it’s probably to your credit. For while I have no doubt that Edwards’s resolutions helped him to focus his mind more clearly on God and matters of theology than he would have done otherwise, I suspect that he was missing the wood for the trees more often than not.

What Edwards got wrong was that his resolutions were not – the fourth P – practical. I’m hard pressed to find a single one of his resolutions that is achievable by any absolute measure. Sure, you could realistically hope to improve at many of them, some in a quantifiable way, but I’m not sure any is strictly possible to achieve outright. By all accounts Edwards was a bit of misery-guts and it’s not hard to work out why.

As you’d expect from an über-resolver like Jonathan Edwards, his resolutions weren’t just for the new year. (And as I noted yesterday, the new year wasn’t the new year when he wrote them.) They stuck with him for life, and have been preserved as an example of single-minded focus ever since.

It can be a very good thing to commit yourself to making improvements towards that which is ultimately impossible, but those commitments are a lifetime’s work and will never be satisfied by the end of it. A new year might well be a good time to start, too, if you haven’t the wit to engineer positivity, publicity and pro-activity otherwise. Perhaps such resolutions are the ones that matter most.

A New Year’s Resolution, though, ought to be the sort of thing you can look back on in the future, like at the end of December, and see whether or not you kept it. Your chances of success will have been aided no end by being positive, public, pro-active and practical.

Last year, I resolved to read one book each week. Some books are little and some are big; some weeks I read lots and other weeks I read very little. Over the year, I think I read about 45 books, or a rounding error off my target.

I also resolved to commit to a regular prayer meeting at church. It went into the diary and I resolved to need a good reason to scrub it out. Those reasons came from time to time, but otherwise I was there like I’d resolved to be. And I wasn’t yet into spring time before the pleasure of the thing itself had superseded the resolution as a motivation for going.

More recently (see, you don’t need to resolve to do things at New Year) I resolved to iron my shirts as a matter of course. I gave up on ironing fairly early into my school career because a) I didn’t enjoy doing it and b) I had better things to worry about than the odd crease. I still have better things to worry about than creases, truth be told, but I have discovered the therapeutic qualities of ironing. And if you get a bit bored you can always press the button that squirts steam out, which is a pretty much the most fun feature of a domestic appliance ever invented.

Three years ago, I think it was, I made eighteen resolutions and a year later judged myself to have made some progress on six of them. I forget what the other twelve were, but I very much doubt I’ve made any progress there even now. I suspect these weren’t particularly practical commitments, or at least the sheer quantity of them denied me the focus necessary to achieve any of them. (Perhaps if Jonathan Edwards had made just seven resolutions he would have been a bit cheerier?)

London, N7
Posted on 02/01/2014  •  987 words

Listening to: Symphony No. 8 in F Major by Ludwig van Beethoven