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Why Forming Habits Is the New New Year’s Resolution

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Every New Years, people try to muster up the willpower to lose weight, be more productive, travel more. However, these resolutions break down because willpower isn’t enough. Something bigger is required.


It’s that time of year. Christmas trees get kicked to the curb, everyone comes down with post-holiday colds and an army of New Year’s Resolution memes begins to march its way across our screens.

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There are a few classics. For example, one featuring the baby in the baseball tee with the clenched fist and the determined expression reads: “My goal for 2018 is to accomplish the goals of 2017, which I should have done in 2016 because I promised them in 2014 and planned them in 2013.” And then there’s Boromir from Lord of the Rings, who grimaces skeptically at the camera, fingers elegantly circled to emphasize his point that, “One does not simply keep their New Year’s Resolutions.”

A trickle of these memes will swell to a flood, and then as Valentine’s Day appears on the horizon they will disappear until next year.

Resolutions depend on willpower, which does not take into account discipline, setbacks or the force of habit. Resolutions are not realistic.

The gimmick of the New Year’s Resolution is a timeworn one, and our resolutions become jokes almost as soon as they are uttered. Everyone knows they don’t actually work, so the more self-aware (or pessimistic) of us don’t even bother to make them. Why should we? Our motivation will be gone by February, our resolution only produces a deflated sense of self-worth. (Just in time for the season of love, too. Talk about timing.)

But what if I told you that New Year’s Resolutions are flawed from the moment we call them “resolutions”?

The terminology of resolution implies a have-it-all-now mentality. It assumes that you can decide to do something and actually accomplish it with raw willpower. In his book “The Power of Habit,” Charles Duhigg writes that, “Willpower isn’t just a skill. It’s a muscle, like the muscles in your arms or legs, and it gets tired as it works harder.” Resolutions depend on willpower, which does not take into account discipline, setbacks or the force of habit. Resolutions are not realistic.

This New Year, Form Habits, Not Resolutions

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Habits, on the other hand, might have much greater power to transform our lives than we give them credit for.

Goals and resolutions glimmer enticingly at a distance, but when roadblocks appear we lose sight of them. Habits, on the other hand, take the day-to-day into account. Habits know that what we do daily will determine the way we live our lives. Habits start small and grow to meet our expectations.

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James K.A. Smith, a professor of philosophy at Calvin College, thinks that habits might have the power to transform our spiritual lives, too. His book “You Are What You Love” poses a criticism of a common Christian idea: that knowing what is best will automatically translate to doing it. Smith writes, “You are hungry for knowledge; you thirstily drink up biblical ideas; you long to be Christlike, yet all of that knowledge doesn’t seem to translate into a way of life. It seems we can’t think our way to holiness.” If you, as a Christian, are frustrated by your lack of spiritual growth, even though you know in your head exactly what you’d like to change, this may be why.

One of Smith’s main arguments in his book is that people are more motivated by what they love than what they think or know. Most people just don’t realize that what you love is largely influenced by your habits; what you do. So if your Christian life is not fortified by habits that point you back to God, chances are you will be easily distracted. Remember: willpower is not enough.

Think about sports, for a moment. Imagine a professional soccer player who loves her sport with single-minded devotion. She has extensive knowledge of soccer; defensive maneuvers, dribbling technique, field rules, etc. But her lifestyle is also oriented around the sport; she gets up early every morning to practice, she watches videos of past games to learn what she can do better, she eats well and exercises so she can be in tip-top physical shape for every game.

This New Year, Form Habits, Not Resolutions

Image courtesy of Shutterstock, Inc., Used By Permission.

Smith goes on to say that, “We learn to love, then, not primarily by acquiring information about what we should love but rather through practices that form the habits of how we love.” In other words, knowing about something or someone we love only goes so far. We also need routines that strengthen our loves, like support beams in a house.

So Smith would respond that, well, of course, the professional player loves soccer! Not only is there something about springy turf and a ball that calls to her, she has a multitude of ingrained habits that reinforce her feelings about the game.

When seeking to attain something in our lives, we would do well to invest our time in forming positive habits, rather than concentrating on a specific goal.

Which is why New Year’s Resolutions usually fail. Trying to keep a goal-oriented resolution is like trying to raise a structure without a sturdy skeleton to depend on; like building a house on shifting sands. When the rains fall and the floods come, it will fall.

While goals rely on extrinsic motivation, habits are automatic. They literally rewire our brains.

When seeking to attain something in our lives, we would do well to invest our time in forming positive habits, rather than concentrating on a specific goal,” says a Farnam Street article about Habits vs. Goals.

If you have a goal in 2019, anything from growing your faith to minimizing your caffeine consumption, try to think about daily habits that will help you get there. Commit to spending ten minutes a day in prayer, maybe, or drinking a half-caf coffee every other day. Focusing on habits will make your goals tangible and practical. It will tug them out of the realm of “I want that someday” to “I can do this one thing today.”

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It will empower you. And in February, you’ll be down to a half-caf every day and your prayer life will have expanded to thirty minutes on your knees daily. When Valentine’s Day rolls around, you’ll love the things that matter to you more, and better, and you’ll laugh as the smart-alecky Boromir posts start saying things like: “One does not simply get a date for Valentine’s Day.”

No matter what you do, you’ll never escape the memes.