January is often seen as a reality-check after the excesses of Christmas and New Year’s Eve celebrations. Wills are resolved, to quit smoking, to go to the gym, to improve our quality of life in some way or other. And the vast majority of resolutions made have been broken by the end of January, abandoned as a bad job by the end of February, and all-but-forgotten by the end of March. Why?
Jesus speaks of reality-check moments. He calls them ‘kairos’ moments: time that has a significance that transcends the chronological record – just as New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day have a cultural significance that transcends the inevitable and unremarkable progression from 23:59 on 31 December to 00:00 on 1 January. And Jesus says that the rightful response to kairos time is to repent and believe: that is to change our mind about something and to live in a different way in relation to that thing.
The process of repentance can be broken down into the steps of observation, reflection, and discussion. The process of believing can be broken down into the steps of planning, putting in place an accountability structure, and acting. (These steps are illustrated in Jesus’ teaching of his disciples.)
Here, then, are six reasons why New Year’s Resolutions are quickly broken:
We fail to observe
New Year may be an arbitrary kairos, but it is no less a kairos for that. But most resolutions are made because we feel that a New Year’s resolution is in order; made as an emotional Pavlovian response to the chimes of Big Ben, or the hangover of the next day; selected from a pre-set and limited menu. For the most part, we fail to stop and observe the small but tell-tale signs; the often incidental ways in which our body tells us that something needs to be addressed before further damage is incurred; or the easily-missed pieces of evidence that someone else has discovered the benefits of a different approach to living.
We fail to reflect
Even if we happen upon a change that has the potential to do us good, we tend to fail to reflect adequately on the matter. For example, if our resolution is to quit smoking, we need to reflect on the stress-triggers in our life, which have been managed by nicotine. To quit smoking without addressing stress will very likely raise our experience of stress, thus driving us back to smoking. Or, for example, if our resolution is to stop binge drinking – arguably the greatest social health crisis facing British society at present – then it will be inadequate to continue going on pub crawls with our friends at the weekend, with the intention of keeping to soft drinks. Success will depend on moderating behaviour; on recruiting friends to support – even join you – in your decision; perhaps, even on finding new friends.
We fail to discuss
Most resolutions are made on our own. If we are brutally honest with ourselves, very few of us trust anyone else enough to ask them “What do you think I need to change about my life?” and to take on board what they say in reply, whether they are our doctor, our spouse, or a friend. Such discussion helps inform – and possibly revise – our own observations and reflections. We need to confront our fear of confrontation, and our addiction to individualism over community.
We fail to plan
Change doesn’t happen by accepting that it needs to happen. Many people know that smoking, or over- or under-eating, or lack of exercise is bad for their health. Change needs to be planned, or it will not happen. An intention is not a plan. Plans need to be practical, detailed, and managed in incremental steps with clear measurable goals that stretch us without being unattainable, so that we are encouraged rather than discouraged. Plans often need the input of an outside ‘expert’ – such as a training programme created for us at the gym.
We fail to make ourselves accountable
Again, here is the weakness of the triumph of individualism over community. Succeed on your own, and you get to claim all the glory...but you massively reduce your chances of succeeding at all. We need the encouragement of others to press through the wall we will hit when trying to make any change of attitude and behaviour. We need someone to expose us when we go back on our intentions and try to hide our failure; someone who will think no less of us, but will help us get back on our feet, will forgive us our failure and our trying to hide our failure, and who will strengthen our resolve by accompanying us on the journey. Every Frodo needs his Samwise.
We fail to act
That is, we might well put our resolution into action, but without having observed, reflected, discussed, planned and made ourselves accountable to carrying out our plan, we are very unlikely to still be acting out our resolution after not very many weeks. On the other hand, at the end of the day a resolution is only a wishful thought, and discretion is the better part of valour: we might as well admit that we won’t be able to change, rather than fail in a very public manner...