New Year’s resolutions have a bit of a bad rap. They’re associated with wildly idealistic goals that only make it a few weeks into the year. It’s easy to make fun of this uncharacteristic interest in personal reform. If we know things in our lives should change, why are we waiting until the end of the year to think about it? Especially as Christians, shouldn’t we be living a focused life all the time, being sensitive to the Spirit and each other, not arbitrarily thinking the start of a new year will make something different?
Some of these objections are solid. But I’d like to suggest that the impulse for reform we feel at the end of a year is something to channel, not dismiss. While it’s true that we should never wait until the end of the year to institute needed change, sometimes we need to step back and think about our lives. Specifically, at the end of a year, we can look back over the year from an overarching perspective. We can ask questions like: How has my outlook on life changed in the past year? How have I grown? What areas of weakness are holding me back the most? Do I have a clear sense of vision and purpose? Again, these are questions that we need to ask. But we simply can’t give full attention to them on a regular basis. Many changes in our lives are imperceptible on a day-to-day basis; we need to look at life from a long-term perspective to catch what’s going on.
And let’s face it: we’re quite busy. We spend a lot of time keeping up with the demands of life. We can’t wake up every morning and reconsider everything in our schedules, analyzing our career, church, and family structure. We have responsibilities that demand attention—no time for idle daydreaming. If we spend an hour of solitude with God every morning—and we should—then most of this time is needed just for strength to face immediate challenges. But if we can’t carefully consider our lives regularly, then we need to set aside time to do it. And while this doesn’t need to be done at the end of the year, it’s a natural time to do it. We might say that changing the last digit on the calendar doesn’t affect us, but I don’t think this is true. We’re usually more sentimental at the end of the year; if nothing else, cold, dreary days after the holidays naturally make us introspective.
So I’d like to do two things: suggest a process for thinking over the year and give some practical ideas on things that could change in your life.
You’re going to want to put things down on paper. Not only will this give you something to look back to later, it will also help direct your mind as you journal. For me, I often sit down and write down a few pages before I even have a good idea of what I’m thinking. If you’re less fond of writing, try spending time alone reflecting on your life, and then sit down and write out the key takeaways. But no matter how you do it, you’ll want to think or write about your life in a way that has some structure to it. For me, I do this by breaking my life into multiple categories and then taking them individually. For instance, I’ll look at my family, church, job, personal discipline, etc. I’ll then pinpoint the weaknesses in each and think about ways I should change.
For this to work, it’s often necessary to think broadly about things that could change. You’ll want to think about your job, friends, and hobbies, instead of assuming that they are all what they should be. Sometimes we need to find better ways to achieve our goals within our current structure. In other cases, we’ll recognize that something significant needs to change. Even when the basic structure of your life should stay the same, it’s valuable to weigh other options. If you seriously consider switching jobs and decide to stay, for instance, you’ll be more confident in your responsibilities after considering alternatives. Nothing can be more crippling than going through life with a vague sense that perhaps something needs to change. So face these questions head on.
Once we know what we should—and shouldn’t—be doing, we can start to flesh out the particulars of our goals. It’s important to make sure that our goals can actually be achieved. If we want to do more of something, then we will need to cut something else out. And we want to make these goals as specific as possible. Maybe you think you should be more involved in your church. If so, then how? Abstract ideas about being more involved in the church won’t take you very far if you don’t know how your life will change next week. The more specific and practical you can make these goals, the further you will go. You’ll want to check in with yourself regularly to see how you’re doing—and probably share your goals with a few friends.
Obviously this process is going to look different for everyone. But I want you to consider a few practical steps.
Few things will influence you as much as what you read. Perhaps you rarely sit down and read a book. But you almost certainly see written content frequently, even if it’s all online or on social media. If you carefully choose books that expand your vision and worldview, the quality of your life will increase. The knowledge gained from reading is quite beneficial in its own right, but I also find that reading puts me in a focused, productive frame of mind. The content itself can be quite inspirational, but the simple act of sitting down and reading a book—as opposed to scrolling through a webpage—is also healthy for the brain. (If reading seems difficult, you can supplement with audiobooks, although I’d still encourage some actual reading.) And again, if you think you should read more—and you probably should!—then make sure you think about when you’re actually going to do it.
Take time for personal reflection—and to check in on your goals
We need moments of calm and still. But if we don’t deliberately take time to step away from our busy lives, it’s not going to happen. This past year, I found myself cutting these times short because I was determined to get more done—I didn’t think I had enough time. (More on that later.) I started to realize how foolish this was. When I’d take time to get away and forget about everything piling up on my to-do list, it was incredibly rejuvenating. If it’s nice weather, I like to go to a park that’s relatively private and walk around for an hour or two. My phone stays in the car—this is essential, I think. I spend the time alone with God, thinking over my life, praying, and simply enjoying a nice walk. The clarity of mind this brings is incredible. It’s strange that we often think we don’t have time for such things. Frankly, it’s the stress and burnout that comes from missing these times that we can’t afford.
It’s also good to sit down and look at the goals you’ve set for yourself and see how you’re doing. Part of the problem with New Year’s resolutions is that people don’t follow through and adjust when necessary. Maybe you’ll realize that you’ve been too ambitious and need to scale back. That’s fine, but the solution is to modify your goals, not drop them. Spending a few hours intentionally every month—for me, it’s journaling—helps keep me on course. I’d certainly notice if I missed a month.
Take more time for relationships
Nothing matters more than relationships. We all know this but sometimes our lives fail to reflect this. There’s also a big difference between quickly saying hi to a friend and actually taking time to know each other well. Perhaps we spend too much energy trying to stay connected with a lot of people in superficial ways. There’s much to be said for intentionally choosing friends who will motivate you to progress in your walk with Christ. As we share our deepest struggles, we inspire each other to rise above our challenges and fulfill our potential for Christ. These “iron sharpening iron” relationships are what makes our lives fulfilling. And as we receive, we will share with others, equipping them in turn to be prepared to give.
Make sure your schedule reflects your values
What is the purpose of your existence? Most of you would quickly say that it’s to love and follow Christ. But this is nothing but an abstract ideal if it doesn’t change how you plan your time. Sometimes we say we love Christ without actually thinking about how this should change our lives—we’ve all been guilty. Too often, the mundane demands of our existence take priority over our spiritual goals. After work and endless social functions, we hardly have time to think about anything else. But why? Sure, we all go through times in our lives when we are overbooked and simply need to plow ahead. Hopefully when we’re this busy, we’re either engaged in the work God has for us or intentionally preparing. But sometimes we’re just allowing the pressures around us—often other Christians more worried about work and vacations than living for Christ—to run our lives. I’m convicted myself.
Do less and do it well
As we look at our schedules, we’ll often realize we’re trying to do too much. I was shocked a few weeks ago when I sat down and looked at all I was trying to do. Any realistic estimate of how much time it would take to achieve my weekly goals was exceeding my waking hours. No wonder I felt so stressed! So I deliberately scaled back on what I was trying to get done, prioritizing the things I thought mattered most. Unsurprisingly, my stress plummeted. But what’s more, I actually started getting more done. With all of this stress gone, I was able to think more clearly, instead of being overwhelmed by a to-do list that was never going to be completed. Somehow it’s much easier to work when we’re ahead and doing extra. But I think this is crucially important to think about as we set our goals. As we say yes to new things, we’ll need to cut things out. Concentrating on a few important things will go a long way.
Find people who push you
As we think over our lives, we need input from others. Perhaps you want to live a more intentional life but aren’t sure how. This is where it’s incredibly valuable to have friends who see your potential and push you to walk it out. Especially as young people, it’s often hard to know our specific calling. And even for those with a strong sense of direction, I’m sure each one could point to people that powerfully influenced them. You want to have people in your life who think a lot of you—and expect a lot. Really, if you think about it, someone who isn’t concerned about your weaknesses doesn’t think a lot of you. Your friends who have cautioning words of wisdom when everyone else is patting you on the back are the friends you need to stick with.
As you set your goals, you’ll want these friends to keep you accountable. Actually, they could even provide the inspiration for knowing what should change. Sometimes we need the fresh perspective of someone who isn’t stuck in the rut of our daily existence.
So I’d encourage you to take a bit of time to think about your life as we enter 2022. Thank God for his goodness in another year. But also think about ways that you can make 2022 an even better and more focused year. And share with others, both to encourage them and to find accountability for yourself.