Most Americans who make New Year’s resolutions don’t keep them, according to polls taken over the years. When they made the resolution, they hoped (if not intended) to keep it. Nevertheless, the failure rate for New Year’s resolutions hovers around 70 percent.
Some common resolutions are: Exercise more; lose weight; get organized; save more money; quit smoking; spend more time with family. No one makes a resolution in the secret hope of failing, yet most people will fail. Why?
In a word: Most people fail because of habit. Our habits can carve such a deep rut that we can’t get out of it in a single leap; it will take a long climb. We resolve to eat a healthier diet, for example, but our resolve wavers in the grocery store when we see the potato chips display and realize chips and dip would be the perfect thing for our little get-together on Friday night.
Of course, when there is dip left over after the party, rather than throwing it away (a clear misuse of our money, which would break resolution number two), we decide to buy a small bag of chips – just to finish off the dip. But of course there will not be enough dip, and so it’s back to the store. Before long, the rut is deeper than ever and we are further from getting out of it than we were when we started.
A few months ago, my four-year-old grandson discovered a small cedar box I keep in my bedroom and decided it looked like a pirate’s treasure chest. I kept several pocketknives in that box, along with tie pins and tie bars, a few old coins, and more. I moved the contents of that box to a small Tupperware container, which I put in my top drawer, and replaced them with gold “coins” –pirate’s treasure.
Since that time, I have mistakenly gone to the small cedar box for a tie pin almost weekly. Of course, if I were to stop and think about it, I would remember that the tie pin is not there. But I don’t stop and think about it. Before I realize what has happened, I’ve opened the box with the gold coins yet again. I groan and intend to get it right next time.
It is a habit that was built over a period of years and such habits do not break easily. As William James once put it, “All our life … is but a mass of habits.” That is why we have so much trouble keeping our New Year’s resolutions: our habits get in the way.
So what can we do? We can start making new habits. It only takes a moment to break a resolution, but it takes time to build – and to break – a habit. I will eventually make a new habit of going to the upper drawer for my tie pin. I haven’t made it yet and would fail to make it, were I to give up and move my tie pin back to the little cedar box. But if I keep the tie pin where it is and keep trying, I will succeed in making a new habit eventually.
Samuel Johnson was right: “Great works are performed not by strength, but by perseverance.” However, it is not just great works: almost everything we do involves habit. Forming a major new habit will require building numerous supporting habits. For example: I may decide to develop a habit of daily Bible reading, a practice that is important in spiritual formation.
Well and good. But to develop this habit, I must develop supporting habits: getting up a half-an-hour earlier, for example. But to make that a habit and not give up, I must go to bed a half-an-hour earlier – another habit. To do that, I must change my evening routine, how late I work, how much TV I watch, and more.
This year, instead of making three or four unrelated resolutions, resolve to create a habit. Think through what supporting habits will be required and set about building them. Then keep at it. Such a resolution won’t be broken by failure, no matter how often you fail, but only by surrender. Don’t surrender.
First published by Gatehouse Media