Do you do New Year’s Resolutions? Believe it or not, starting a new habit during the new year is more likely to work long term than if you started at any other time. Now that’s more likely, but still not very likely. In Angela Duckworth’s book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, she talks about how we often do our goal making in reverse. We think about what the next step in our lives should be, rather, we should be thinking about the most important end goals in our life and working backwards from there.
For example, many of us, myself included, have probably made a new year’s resolution to lose weight. Losing weight is something I should do for a multitude of reasons, but what is my end goal? To look better? Why? My wife loves me even though I’ve always been a little funny looking. To be healthier? Sure, but is that the best way to be healthy? If you don’t have a clear reason as to why you try to do something hard, you’ll just give up when things get hard! Every gym and YMCA will be packed in January, but by March they will feel like a ghost town.
Don’t feel bad, you’re not a failure
Studies have shown that 88% of all New Year’s Resolutions will fail. Those are fun odds, are they? Thanks to good old fashioned “Protestant Work Ethic” we believe that we should be able to do anything we put our mind to, and a lack of success is a character flaw. We see willpower as a tool that can be used to solve all of our problems, and that’s a very unhealthy way of thinking about human cognition. Instead of thinking about willpower as a tool, think about it as currency. You wake up in the morning with $100 willpower dollars, and you have to be reasonable on how you spend those willpower dollars! You can’t spend them like I spent my real dollars at Christmas time, otherwise you will runout of willpower to achieve those big new goals you made for New Years. You wake up, and you spend $20 willpower dollars on working out first thing. You spend another $50 willpower dollars trying not to lose your cool getting your children ready for school (this amount may vary, I have a two-year-old so it costs a lot), the work day will suck a lot out of you, and by the time you get home you might not have enough willpower dollars left to have a healthy supper. Realizing that you have natural and human limits to the stress you can cope with is essential to making positive changes in your life.
Here’s some good news: you can hit the willpower ATM. Giving yourself a little treat helps you recover some willpower. If healthy eating is one of your willpower investments, think about non-food related treats. At least once a day I take five minutes to listen to Doesn’t Remind Me by Audioslave and air-guitar the entire sick solo. I’m a gamer, so sometimes I just need to take a 15-minute game break on one of the classic PS1 games I have on my phone. I’m sure most of you will have far less dorky non-food related treats, but what’s important is realizing that you need that boost to have the willpower to get through the day. If you intentionally plan them, it will give you something to look forward to. Even more good news, as new habits form, they are less taxing on your willpower. Every week you do them, they will cost you fewer willpower dollars. Speaking of habits…
Focus on changing your habits rather than changing yourself
I have a terrible confession to make: I used to be a smoker. I picked up that nastiest of habits in my mid- to late twenties, and knew it was gross the whole time. I tried a few different methods and would always come back to it until I saw the most subtle anti-smoking ad. It had a man going out for a cigarette break and he randomly starts trying to hijack cars until he pushes a man out of a delivery truck and drives off. The end tag line was “You don’t have to drive every time you smoke, so you shouldn’t have to smoke every time you drive.” That blew my mind! Once I thought about it, I DID smoke almost every time I got in the car. My parents smoked too, and they always lit up when they got into the car. I started asking all of my smoking friends and co-workers, and they did too! Apparently, most smokers accidently classically condition themselves to associate driving and smoking. I’m not sure if academia has come up with a term to describe this effect, but I think it should be called Pavlov’s Cancer.
1 A great article by Jonah Lehr. Full of all kids of brain stuff https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748703478704574612052322122442
In his book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg breaks down habits into three parts: stimulus, response, reward. If you understand how habits work, you can modify or avoid a part of the process and change the whole habit. Take the smoking while driving example. The stimulus is getting in the car, the response is lighting up a cigarette, the reward is feeding a nicotine addiction (which sounds like a terrible reward for those who are not addicted to nicotine). According to Duhigg, I could avoid the stimulus. Cutting back on driving equated to a cut back in smoking. I could change the response. Every time I drove, I would eat a piece of candy, thus changing the reward as well. In the end, I found some caffeinated gum so that way my response to wanting a cigarette was chewing gum and getting a caffeine pick me up.
Think about the aspects of your life that you want to change. What habits reinforce the status quo? How can you change the stimulus, response, reward routine to better serve your goals? By the way, what are your goals?
Focus on what you want out of life
Instead of just throwing that goal out there, I have thought a lot about what I really want out of life. I never got to meet my great-grandparents. Lily, my five-year-old daughter, has gotten to meet three of her great-grandparents, and I thought that was a really neat experience. However, we didn’t have Lily until I was 35. If she follows in my footsteps that means I won’t see grandkids until I’m 70, so I might have to live until I’m 105 years old if I’m going to meet that goal! Meeting my great-grand-kids has become my top tier goal, so from there I have to start making a plan on how to get there by setting sub goals. I need to make sure that my heart is healthy, I get checked out for all the types of cancer that run common in my family, I stretch out to remain limber, and yeah, I probably need to lose some weight too. When I understand what my main goal is, I see how each step I take gets me closer to that purpose. I can look at every piece of broccoli as an extra few minutes I get to spend with my descendants. Every candy bar I skip now is a candy bar I get to share with Lily’s grandkids. Understanding what you are working for keeps you motivated to do the hard work and will make you more likely to succeed.
The church is the same way.
What are the goals for our church? That’s not a rhetorical or subjective question. Our church has a goal in the form of a mission: to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Our goal is the transformation of the world. How do we do that? By making disciples. We need to focus on that end goal and ask ourselves, “How does the work we do connect to that end goal?” I pastor two small churches with limited resources, both financial and labor. We only have so much time and energy to invest in the work of the church, so we need to be able to connect all that we do to that mission. Are we making disciples? Are we transforming the world? Just like any personal goal, if the church doesn’t understand why it’s doing something, doesn’t see how it connects back to transformation, people will just give up when the work gets hard or inconvenient. However, if are clear in our vision, and clear in how our actions work towards that goal, people will get excited! Rather than struggling to find volunteers, we will be surrounded by people who are passionate about serving the church.
We need to start asking this about each and everything we do as a church. It might get scary and disappointing. We might find some of our traditions have failed to serve our mission and we will have to make some hard choices about the work we do, but if we don’t our church might be as empty as the gym in March.
There is passion and purpose at within the United Methodist Church. We just need to remember what we are here for, to make disciples of Jesus Christ, and we will kick off the New Year the right way.
Peace and Grace,