A majority of people report making resolutions each new calendar year. Unfortunately, your chances of making it through January with your resolution intact are slim. For while it’s easy to get fired up about starting the new calendar year off right, when everyone is making resolutions too and excitement about change is in the air, it’s harder to sustain that commitment as the weeks go by (the same phenomenon applies to Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year).
Right now, during the depths of January when we’re most struggling to maintain our resolutions, is the real time to change. Studies show that those who make it through this month have a better chance of sticking to their resolutions for the rest of the year.
Jewish tradition gives us strategies for sticking with resolutions, even once the initial excitement has worn off. Even if you haven’t made any big resolutions yet this year, these behaviors can give you the tools to make this year your best yet.
1. Smart Planning
The famous Jewish poem “A Woman of Valor” describes the ideal woman. In addition to being a wife and mother, she’s selfless and busy: a tireless businesswoman. Many commentators have taken her description to be an allegory for the entire Jewish people. One of the most important qualities ascribed to her is foresight: “she considers a field, a buys it” (Proverbs 31:15). Amidst all her busy activities, she takes the time to stop, think, and plan ahead where it is she wants to be.
Jewish tradition encourages this type of preparing: set aside some time regularly – it can be annually, monthly or more often – to spend some time thinking about your goals and coming up with real life, detailed plans for tackling them. Brainstorm specific ways to replace old habits with new ones. When do you find it most difficult to implement your new behavior? What can you do when you feel yourself slipping back into old habits? Spending some time on this sort of exercise can transform resolutions from pipedreams to real, actionable plans.
Modern research echoes this wisdom. Scientists have found that this sort of regular, detailed planning is much more effective than more general, sweeping goals. Spend some time honestly thinking about your strengths and weaknesses: try to anticipate the challenges you face, and work on coming up with strategies that will help you towards your goals.
2. Seeing the Bigger Picture
While you’re brainstorming, spend some time also considering why you’ve chosen your goals and resolutions. What bigger picture are they part of? When the first excitement of new resolutions fades, having in mind what larger goals our resolutions are part of can help sustain us, giving us a larger reason for our behaviors. A person who wants to lose weight in the New Year, for instance, might ask herself why: does she want to be healthy? Does she want to have energy to be there for her family? What sort of person, ultimately, does she want to become?
When we reframe our resolutions as steps towards our ultimate goals, we gain the confidence that it’s possible to reach them. In modern psychological parlance, this is called self-efficacy: the belief that our goals are possible, which greatly enhances our self-control and ability to realize our ambitions.
This January, try asking yourself the big, heavy questions. What are you living for? What do you truly value? Thinking about these issues can help motivate us in keeping the resolutions that will bring us closer to our ultimate purpose.
3. New Habits
The Talmud relates the story of Rabbi Meir, who came to the aid of a couple who used to fight every Shabbat (Gittin 52a). Each Friday afternoon for three weeks, Rabbi Meir went to their house and acted as peacemaker, smoothing over their differences and helping them not to fight. By the end of the third week, the Talmud relates, the couple no longer had the habit of fighting: their problem was cured.
The Torah recognizes that after three weeks, new behaviors begin to become routine; if we can only make it through this difficult, early phase, our chance of changing our conduct permanently is much stronger.
Modern science also recognizes that forming new habits is crucial to changing the way we do things. Habit, which bypasses conscious thought, occurs when particular neural pathways in our brains are strengthened; brain activity along those lines is easier than other types of thought, and so becomes our default mode of behavior. It’s possible to “reprogram” our brains and create or strengthen new, different, neural connections.
“Reprogramming” the way we behave usually takes several weeks of conscious effort. Researchers have found that three weeks – the same length of time the Talmud mentioned – is roughly the length of time needed to change our brain structure. Recognizing this – and realizing that once our new behavior becomes habit it will be much easier to sustain – can help get us through the challenges of our first month or so when keeping new resolutions.
4. Healthy Environments
“Do not put a stumbling block before the blind” (Leviticus 19:14) the Torah enjoins. It can be hard enough to stick to a new regime without surrounding ourselves with temptations to lapse in our new resolutions. Whatever behavior we are trying to affect, it’s easier when we remove ourselves from challenging situations.
Conversely, the Torah also instructs us to find mentors for ourselves. “Provide for yourself a teacher and get yourself a friend” (Pirkei Avot 1:6). Attaching ourselves to people and communities whose behaviors model what we want for ourselves, can help move ourselves closer to our goals.
5. Connecting with God
Finally, even after taking all these steps, it can be difficult to get over the hump of January (or any time following the decision to turn over a new leaf, whatever the time of year or one’s stage in life). There are times when we’ve all felt completely helpless: that achieving our goals is beyond our grasp.
Three thousand years ago, King David grasped this truth. He realized his only chance to succeed was appealing to God, and he penned words that have guided Jews ever since: “From the depths have I called to You, oh God” (Psalm 130:1).
In ancient times some synagogues even contained indentations in the floor where people could lead prayer “out of the depths”. Doing so – appealing to God when we realize we can’t succeed on our own – can bring us closer to the Divine, giving us both the strength and the resolution to succeed in our goals.
When the going gets tough, try opening a dialogue with God. This can be as formal or informal as you like. Get used the idea of asking God for help with your resolutions. This dialogue can help us clarify exactly what it is we’re trying to achieve and why, and it can also help give us the energy and spiritual sustenance to succeed in our goals.