New Year resolutions?

As the year ends, many of us turn our thoughts to making New Year resolutions. My advice: don’t or at least not until you have carefully worked through what each goal will mean to you. Think about the benefits to your life, the joy it might bring and the cost of getting to the end. Making changes in our lives is no casual thing.

So many of us start out with good intentions to reform our lives at this time of year. The idea behind new year resolutions is that we want to add a new skill or pursue a new relationship or change some aspect of our lives for the better. It is a noble desire to want to set ourselves a target for the year. But to achieve success, we need more than good intentions and a wave of enthusiasm as we herald in another year.

Oscar Wilde once quipped, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” The trick with achieving new things in our lives is to understand that few of them just happen. We have to be intentional, and being intentional means that we need some sort of intention; a plan.

Studies have shown that over a quarter of us will have abandoned our quest after one month, and less than 10% achieve any level of success. One study has shown that only 8% of people achieve their year-end goal. It’s all rather depressing when we read these results. What, I wonder, is the secret of the 8%? The answer is not altogether clear, but there are some common strands to their success.

Faced with these results, I have reviewed what will dramatically improve our chances of success. Achieving a goal requires us to change our behaviour for the better. Reform is far more challenging than we often imagine and requires a serious plan to make it all work. I have spent some years refining my plan. Here is what I have learned.

1 Small is beautiful

In setting a goal, we have a tendency to promise ourselves sweeping changes with big gestures. Frankly, we are tempted to go for the big goal. Research shows that it is much better to set an achievable goal. But what is achievable?

An achievable goal is one we have considered and deemed doable. It has to be small enough to manage. When one of my daughters was at university, she came home one weekend with the title of her first essay, threw her arms around me and cried, “I can’t do it!” As she clung onto me, I started to think about what I would say to her, to help her through her crisis. I simply asked her “How do you eat an elephant?” At first, there was a pained look on her face. She was thinking, she later told me, ‘what does this old fool know about my life?’ Then she looked pained and puzzled at me, I said, “One bite at a time.” With that, she laughed, and I helped her to set about making a plan, even though I knew nothing about her subject. The big must become small.

I’m the sort of person who needs to consider a commitment before choosing to embrace it. I need to turn it over in my mind, visualise what achieving the goal looks like, and see the setbacks I might encounter. Once that is done, I move onto the next stage. If I find that my goal is more easily achieved than I first thought, it becomes an early success.

2 The few versus the many

One of the key drivers in achieving our goals is to limit ourselves to a few well-chosen ones. I suggest no more than five. Too many will mean that we will have difficulty managing them. The final number we choose might also depend on the type of objective we have in mind.

If I have five resolutions for the year, I find it helpful to have perhaps two easier ones to achieve, leaving one more meaty goal and another that will stretch me. I think it is better to have too few than too many. One can always add another goal later if you want. Choosing the right number of goals for the year is a matter of knowing how you respond to challenges of this type.

We live in a world filled with choices. Too much choice can be bad for us since we will find that decision making is more draining and difficult. Narrowing our choices helps us to decide what is really important. In turn, this means that we must have the courage to reject perfectly worthy options in favour of one or two goals.

The secret to choosing our goals is to restrict our options. Restricting our options helps us to focus on those things that are the most important to us. Positive restriction makes managing our choices easier.

It helps to visualise achieving the goal, but we can make the mistake of thinking that achieving a goal is the same thing as living in the goal’s success. Our most significant objectives must be places where we can live. For example, let us suppose that I want to lose some weight and set a target. Is my goal to reach the weight or to stay at that weight permanently? Reaching the weight is one thing; staying there is quite another. This is the main reason why I might narrow my options. I don’t want to visit my goals; I want to live in them.

3 A powerful pen

Martin Luther, the sixteenth-century Reformer wrote, “If you want to change the world, pick up your pen and write.” Most of us will not change the world; we will have enough trouble changing ourselves.

We can apply that principle to our goals for the year. Writing down my goals does several things. First, the very act of recording our goals makes our commitment to them stronger. Writing clarifies our thinking and strengthens our resolve, and it does not matter whether we use a pen or a keyboard. Second, writing down our goals for the year means I have a record of them, giving me a visual cue to remind me of them and their phrasing. Thirdly, writing them down helps me cement my decisions, and improves the chances of keeping them in the front of my mind.

If we choose small enough goals, narrow our selection to a few well-chosen ones, and write them down, then we are well-placed for success. With these considerations finalised, our chances of success increase with every small refinement. We have moved from the crowd and towards the 8%.

4 Monitor and manage

Most of us need some way of keeping our goals in mind. Take, for example, my goal of losing weight. I have set a goal weight to reach and to make sure that I continue my downward trend, I monitor my weight every day. I build the weigh-in into my morning routines and hand-write the result in my day-book. This goal requires measurement every day. I chose to record my weight every day because I know how easily my work can be undone.

In another example, I have some investment goals for 2021. In this case, I record the performance of my investments each Saturday morning on my spreadsheet. As the weeks pass by, I can soon see how they perform, building a picture on how well or otherwise they are progressing.

Every goal requires a unique response to monitoring progress or regress. It is only through close monitoring that I can see what is happening. In my first goal, I want to lose; in the second, I want to gain, but it is only through monitoring the situation that I can see if I am moving in the right direction. I use my task manager to remind me of my resolutions. Every three months, I set an automatic reminder, and I have an embedded a link to the file so that review is easy and never more than a click away. I have found that the way the goal is monitored is just as important as the goal itself. It can make all the difference between success and failure.

5 Long haul or short haul?

My examples are long-term goals and appear in my list for most years. I have lost over seventy-five pounds in weight over the last few years, and since I have chosen to lose weight permanently, I decided to lose weight slowly. My achievement takes me to within a few pounds of my weight when I married some forty-two years ago. So far, I am pleased with the result. I recommend breaking larger resolutions into manageable chunks, each smaller success is a milestone on a long journey. The win comes in achieving the smaller units of the larger objective.

And finally

If I have a setback and I have had many, I am resolved to treat myself with self-compassion and kindness. By sticking with our resolutions, we can achieve worthwhile changes in our life and enjoy the journey. And now, I must finish my resolutions for 2021 – the new year is fast approaching.

COVID-19: Cultivating a Positive Perspective

Adam Graver, 22, lives and works in Hextable, Kent and is this month’s guest blogger

It’s a bit of a cliché these days, especially in my area of work (Christian ministry), that perspective is everything. Still, despite being wearied by the endless illustrations employed by well-meaning people endorsing adopting a more positive perspective on life, I do have to concede that they do have a point. When navigating the uncharted waters of lock-down and striving to cultivate a healthy mental state, the way that we digest the news and information around the pandemic is key.

Anxiety is understandably on the rise during the pandemic, according to statistics gathered by the BBC, suggesting the impacts of lock-down on daily life as a critical driver of this. One of the vital hallmarks of an anxious mindset is the anticipation of the worst-case scenario. It is certainly easy to fall into this mindset, considering the unprecedented nature of the situation that we are in. A counter for anxiety of this kind, therefore, is to set our minds on dreaming for the future instead. Let me explain how I do this.

Probably the most challenging aspect of lockdown for me is the separation from those that I love. Adopting an anxious mindset, which would probably be my default, promises many more weeks and months of this separation, and the pain that accompanies this. I question how long I can cope without seeing them, and greatly exaggerate how long this period will be. Approaching the reading of the news with this mindset, I will unconsciously reinforce this worst-case scenario in the way that I interpret what the media is saying. For instance, I will focus on the high death rates and spread of infection and interpret that data to mean that it will be a long time before I can see my friends and family. This mindset is unhelpful for obvious reasons. Early on in the lockdown, it became apparent that I needed a more positive way of thinking.

One such way in which I attempted to do this was looking at other countries, which were further on in their epidemics, and observing how their restrictions were being gradually lifted. What could this look like in the UK, and how would the restrictions easing in a similar way affect my life? What would be the first thing I would do when the restrictions were easing here? Suddenly, in focusing on the possibilities and opportunities that will eventually be opened to me when lockdown eases, my mental state is improved. I can begin to dream of how life improves, what I will say to and do with my loved ones when I see them again, and my mindset is switched from one which imagines the worst-case scenario to dreaming for the future.

Perspective is essential, and the way we think – the way we imagine the future to be is critical during these times, and stewarding our thoughts is vital for maintaining a healthy mental state.

Adam Graver

I did not want to go there

A compass in a hand

Have you ever gone where you do not want to go? Early retirement through ill health brought me to this place in 2016, almost exactly four years ago as I write. I neither saw nor wanted to go “there”. I did not know where “there” was at the time, even now a description tests my ability to write.

When Jesus said to Peter, John 21:18, “When you are old, you will go where you don’t want to go,” the statement came on the back of his restoration with Jesus, after Peter’s denials. The incident also took place after the resurrection of Jesus, in the context of new revelation. The encouragement of Peter’s restoration was tempered by the strangeness of Jesus statement.

Jesus words to Peter were first and foremost personal, spoken in the hearing of the other disciples. It was a private revelation given in the presence of others. It is at this point that the Bible falls silent on the matter, nothing further is said. As is often the case, when the Bible falls silent tradition takes up the thread and makes much of the manner of Peter’s eventual death in Rome, some thirty-five years later. And it is here that the story usually comes to a final rest.

Utterly exhausted by ministry, and never having fully recovered from a mental breakdown some six years earlier, retirement thrust me into a landscape that neither had shape nor form. I sought a road map but found none. I looked for familiar landmarks but found none, and I looked for pathways that others have taken but found none.

I might not have had a road map, but I did have a compass, one that kept me pointing to God, and in time, I ripened for revelation. But before that time came and because the familiar danglements of evangelical vocabulary had worn thin, I re-assessed much of my thirty something-years of following Christ.

At no time did God retreat from my experience, though he did stand back and let me wrestle with my emptiness. But it was not so with my relationship with the church or my first language, evangelicalism. I drifted from the church and felt alienated by my native evangelical language, both of which were in full retreat and distant. I was stripped bare of my appetite for church and lost my desire to use an evangelical vocabulary. I was trapped in the vacuum between the old and the new. We do not usually sign up for nakedness of this kind. Nevertheless, that is where I was, and I knew I had to work with what I had at that moment.

At first, I discovered that as I travelled my road, I neither understood the pain of reconstruction nor, could I see the new. There were no easy answers; nothing was ready-made. I wrestled for everything.

Once I realised that God was holding onto me, and not me holding onto God, I was able to see that God reframed my understanding of who he is, and I would not change a thing despite the personal trials I endured during this time.

Perhaps these thoughts have an application during the Coronavirus lockdown; after all, we find ourselves moving where we do not want to go. In these ‘unprecedented times,’ we should not be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God.

I have lockdown lurgy

The peg in the lawn

I am finding that the novelty of lockdown has worn thin, and frankly, I’m struggling with it all. At first, the lockdown was a new challenge to meet. Responding to these first adjustments to my life gave me something new to conquer. Now, it’s week six, and I am, well, wearied by it all. I feel like I am running a marathon with the finishing line nowhere in sight. I need a fresh injection of hope to keep sane.

I have resorted to staring at the infographic from my last post to keep me on the white line of life. And another thing; I’m watching my self-talk – it drifts off centre. When my self-talk drifts, my mental health slides with it disabling me further. A normally well-ordered life begins a downward plunge into chaos. On these days sucess is making it to bed time.

Arresting my mental decline becomes my new goal. And I have been thinking about my positive routines. I need to treasure them and keep them well maintained.

It sounds counter-intuitive, but once I appreciate my daily routines, seeing them as a positive, I can exercise gratitude for them. Showing appreciation for my habits is a skill that I have developed in later life. I now find that I like my routines; they are my friends. I see them as boundary markers: inside them, I am free to express myself in an endless variety of ways. But, if I treat them casually, then orange lights start to light on my emotional dashboard. These helpful habits provide me with boundary markers that help me stay in the safe zone. And, in the safe zone, I feel more in control – a little like the Ten Commandments really.

New routines may help us to cope with change and helps us form healthy habits, and in turn, this reduces our stress levels.

  1. ROUTINE IS AN ANCHOR
    Routine acts like an anchor in our souls. For instance, whatever takes place during our day, knowing that our evening meal is around 18:00, and knowing I go to bed around 22:00, can be a real comfort. The certainty of routine gives us a framework for the day. Frameworks hold me.
  2. ROUTINE IS FREEDOM
    That framework provides me with plenty of room to do all the other things I have planned to do. So, rather than a restriction, my routines are a means of regulating my life. A regulated life is a healthy life.
  3. ROUTINE REDUCES STRESS
    I find that routine can carry me when I need some support to keep going. If my habits are engrained, then they can help to transport me through a tough time, reducing the stress of blocked goals or ineffectiveness. A blocked goal is frustration. Frustration is stress.
  4. ROUTINE BUILDS POSITIVE HABITS
    There are times when our life needs positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement is vital to keep me steady. I so easily slide away from my ideals or healthy habits; so they bring me back by exercising a mid-course correction. Positive habits steer me away from danger lines.
  5. ROUTINE PUTS A PEG IN MY LAWN
    If I put a “peg in my lawn” whenever I look out of the window, I will see the peg. Putting a “peg in my lawn” is a metaphor that I have used throughout my professional life, and now that I am retired, I find it just as useful to shape my present and to plan my future. I need pegs.

Can you help?

I’m collecting stories:
I am interested to hear how you are coping with the lockdown. How has it affected your mental and emotional health, and what strategies have you put in place to help?

Please tell me about your routines. Have they changed since our lockdown?

When did you last venture out?

Drop me a line, and your comments could form the foundation of another post. Thank you so much.