Despite our resolve to change and grow this year, how many of us have already started slipping back into old modes of behavior and bad habits? As past experience has taught us, making the decision to change does not guarantee change. Don't be discouraged. Here are five practical ideas to help you stick to your resolutions and reach true growth.
1. Focus Only On Today
Strive to grow today, in the present moment. Don't worry about having messed up in the past. It's over and you can change and grow today. And don't worry about the future; you're not there yet. Just take it one day at a time.
As it says in the Torah, "You are all standing today before God" (Deut 29:9). Specifically today – not in the past or the future, but you are standing here today.
So if you resolved to shed that excess weight and adopt a more healthy lifestyle, don't think about the holidays and all the food you've consumed. That's in the past. And don't worry about all the meals you'll be having during Sukkot and how on earth you'll manage to stick with the salads. That's the future. Just focus on today – that you can handle. The days will add up on their own and create momentum.
2. Develop a Strategy
Every goal needs a clear-cut plan of action in order to come to fruition. You've done some honest introspection and clarified your goal. Now how are you going to get there? What do you need to change to accomplish this goal?
You can't do a complete overhaul of your entire life all at once. You need to develop a long-term plan, even one that could take a lifetime, and make sure you're heading in the right direction. Break it down in to manageable baby steps that you're confident you can keep to and will lead to results.
For example, let's say this year you want to become a better parent. You might write up a plan:
Sign up for 3 month parenting course that starts end of October
Read one recommended parenting book before end of November
December keep daily tabs on how many times I lose my temper with the kids
January keep journal of daily loving things I do for my children
February, choose one main idea from course which I will implement in my daily life.
The simpler, the better. Each small step you take in the right direction is monumental! As our sages say, "Open up an opening for Me like the eye of the needle and I will open up for you and opening through which wagons can enter" (Shir HaShirim Rabba 5:3).
3. Make it Happen Automatically
Don't trust yourself that you'll always feel as strongly about your aspirations as you do now, or that you'll be able to consistently remember and carry out your commitments. If there's a way to create a situation that almost forces you externally to do what you know deep down is the right thing to do, without counting on your own decision at every given moment, you stand a much greater chance of getting the job done.
For instance, if you decided you should be giving $200 a month to charity, arrange with your bank to automatically send this sum to the organization of your choice on a certain day every month. Or write out 12 postdated checks and put them in stamped envelopes ready to send out on the first of every month. Somehow make sure it's out of your hands.
If you want to increase your amount of Torah learning this year, get a study partner or sign up for a "Partners in Torah" program, where someone is paired up to study with you over the phone. Knowing that someone is counting on you to be there and learn increases the chances that it will happen.
4. Say it Out Loud
This is one of the 48 Ways to Wisdom, mentioned in Ethics of the Fathers (Avot, 6:6).
Speech is a uniquely human characteristic. It is the way we translate a spiritual thought into a physical reality. Articulation makes an idea real. It also forces you to focus on what the words mean and achieve clarity and inner resonance with the concept.
For instance, if you take a moment and think: What do I really want to work on improving this year? Then say out loud: "I'm committed to working on becoming a better spouse and getting rid of my anger." Say it a few times and see if you mean it. If it sounds good and resonates with you, it is becoming an actual reality, as opposed to a lofty notion in your mind.
When it comes to our Rosh Hashana aspirations, it's easy to think highly idealistic thoughts, but they may not be practical or concrete until we verbalize them. Once you articulate clearly what you truly desire to accomplish and how you plan to achieve your goals, you get to know yourself better, what are your blocks and obstacles, and you stand a much greater chance of bringing potential in to actuality.
Suppose you make a decision to make time in your day for prayer. Play your own devil's advocate and challenge yourself in a real dialogue (well, monologue really):
"I'm really going to start praying every day."
"I doubt that. It hasn't worked all last year. Why should it work this year? Convince me."
"That's because I was so distracted with the kids and getting them off to school."
"So how will you avoid those distractions this year?"
"I will wake up 20 minutes earlier every day and be much more organized."
"Mmmm. What are the chances you will do that?"
"What do you mean? I bought an alarm clock and am all set to go!"
"Great! Go for it! Is it set for the right time tomorrow morning?"
Of course, don't do this in public. You don't want people to think you've gone off the deep end. But in a quiet room, read out your list of resolutions to yourself and see if you find yourself resisting anything, or if there are some hazy, unclear aspects to your plan, and argue it out with yourself!
5. Involve a Friend
Tell a trusted friend or spouse, teacher or confidante about your goals for the coming year. If they're willing to spend the time with you, ask them to work out a plan with you that seems realistic. Tell them to feel free to keep tabs on you and remind you about your resolutions. Best case scenario would be to establish a daily or weekly check-in phone call where you could gauge your progress, discuss how things are going and perhaps study together from a book which explores the issue and inspires growth in the area in which you have resolved to change.
Shana tova and good luck with the growth you're going to accomplish today.