Every year 40% of Americans make a New Year’s Resolution, but only 8% of them succeed.
If you made a resolution, there’s actually a really good chance that you’ve already fallen off the wagon or will in the next few weeks. Your chances of succeeding all year long are abysmal. I mean, like, I don’t want to be a debby downer, but you are going to fail.
Any step we take to better ourselves is good, so hopefully we can find a way around failing, but first we need to figure out why they fail.
Why do resolutions fail?
The biggest problem with resolutions is that they are too vague. Say you set a resolution to lose 50 pounds this year, how do you plan on doing that? Too often our resolutions are goal based (lose weight, read the whole Bible, save this much money), but we fail to have actionable items.
Problem 1: they don’t help us know how to act.
The second problem is that resolutions are too rigid. Again, say you’re planning on losing 50 pounds this year. You’re not stupid, so you’ll just aim to not gain weight the week of Christmas and Thanksgiving which gives you 50 weeks of weight loss. That works out to exactly a pound a week. Totally manageable. I’m proud of you for setting reasonable goals.
Of course, it may not go as you plan. You might only lose .5 pounds a week for the first 5 months. That’ll be 10 pounds. Now you have to lose 40 pounds in 7 months or you failed. You have a few options 1)Step into high gear and hope you can make it 2) Realize you failed and give up entirely (at least until 2015) 3)Keep going at .5 pounds a week and ignore your resolution.
I choose option two every time. Most people do, that’s why only 8% of people who make New Year’s Resolutions succeed. When you set a resolution that is a rigid goal, failing once means you have failed completely. That is disheartening and we usually give up after that.
Problem 2: There is no room for failure.
Both of these things combined allow you to procrastinate on your resolution. It’s only January, you’ve done the math, and you can totally stand to finish off the Christmas fudge because you only have to lose 1 pound a week. That’s easy. Since your goal is vague it can always start later and since it is rigid it has always started too late.
Problem 3: No need for immediate action.
A New Kind of Resolution
The problem with resolutions is that they don’t help us know how to act, there is no room for failure, and there is no need for immediate action. The solution is to focus on actions that you do daily and to start fresh each morning whether you failed yesterday or not.
Using this idea the past few years have been my best years for personal improvement and my spiritual formation.
I kept meaning to be a person who knows how to pray, who knows Greek, who has their finances all figured out, who is in optimum health. And it was easy to think that one day I would just be those things.
I realized one day that the kind of person I wanted to be was a person of habits.
People who know Greek study Greek everyday. People who are in excellent health eat well everyday. People who have their finances in order live within their budget everyday.
The way to turn into the person you want to be is to practice being that person.
So I figured out what the habits of future me should be, gave myself the grace to fail at those habits, and got to work immediately.
I didn’t know when I thought all of this up that I was not the first person to do it. I didn’t even know that it has a long history in Christianity. I had created a rudimentary Rule of Life.
The Rule of Life
A “rule” is the established pattern of life in a monastery. The most famous rule is “The Rule of St. Benedict” which determines the lives of Benedictine monks. There is also a “Rule of St. Augustine” which shapes the daily pattern of, you guessed it, Augustinian monks.
Rules are designed for a community and determines how often the monks will pray, attend mass, study, work, etc. The benedictine rule establishes guidelines for the practices of prayer, study, recreation, work, and hospitality.
A Rule of Life is a daily guide tailored to an individual. A rule of life is not like a New Year’s Resolution because it is about habits, not goals, and it restarts daily. You begin now and you can always start over tomorrow.
A Rule of Life can follow the benedictine practices, it can help guide disciplines of orthodoxy, orthopraxy, and orthopathy, or it can just be a list of disciplines you will perform daily.
For years I have had an unspoken and unrefined rule of life and it has helped me to grow. Recently I sat down and prayerfully created a specific rule of life and it has been even more beneficial.
Creating a Rule of Life
The first thing to do when you create your rule of life is pray.
There’s an interesting story in Acts 13. Acts is the story of the church’s foundation and growth. By Acts 13 things have gotten rough for the growing religion. Stephen was killed and a persecution began that scattered new Christians. James was killed. Peter was put in prison. There has been fighting among the church about the Hebrew Jews being treated better than the Greek Jews. Peter had preached the gospel to some Gentiles, and there was also fighting about that.
But among all this trouble there were glimmers of hope. One such glimmer was that Saul, the chief persecutor, had converted to Christianity.
In Acts 13, while the church in Antioch is praying and fasting God speaks to them and says, “Set apart Saul [and Barnabas] for my work.”
Saul. The guy who held the men’s coats while Stephen was stoned. He is who God chose.
Then they pray and fast some more before sending them out.
When we pray (and fast) God speaks to us in unexpected ways. When you’re setting out to create a rule of life you should pray (and fast) so that you can ask God, “What things would you have me do? What unexpected things do you have in store for me?”
Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
Next, you will need to discern. You’ve been praying and listening and maybe hearing something, maybe noticing things, but praying alone doesn’t give you direction.
Saul, now called Paul, and Barnabas went and preached the gospel to Gentiles and many believed. But some people were teaching that Gentiles had to be circumcised to become a Christian.
Which obviously was a bit of a hindrance.
An argument arose about what to do about all the new Gentile Christians so they had a meeting called, “The Jerusalem Council.”
Paul and Barnabas told all about what God had been doing among the Gentiles. Peter told about how God had sent him to do the Gentiles. James (not the dead one) points out that God had said one day even Gentiles would bear His name.
So the elders agreed that they would not require Gentiles to be circumcised.
The Jerusalem Council shows us three ways to make decisions.
- What God is doing around you (Paul and Barnabas’ report)
- What God is doing in you (Peter’s report)
- What God has done in the past (James’ report)
So, as you sit down to decide where you need to grow and how you should do it, look at what God is doing around you, what God is doing in you, and what God has done in the past.
- What is God doing in my faith community?
- In what ways is God growing me? What disciplines have been beneficial?
- What has God used to grow people in the past?
If you asks these questions you’ll begin to have a clear direction.
Now you just need to actually create your Rule of Life.
Begin by creating an outline. Do you want to follow the Benedictine rule (focusing on areas of prayer, study, recreation, work, and hospitality)? Or do you want to focus on orthodoxy, orthopathy, and orthorpraxy? Maybe just a list of disciplines?
Once you decide, list disciplines that you feel drawn to through your prayer and discernment.
After the Jerusalem Council the elders sent a letter announcing their decision to Antioch (where the debate had begun).
They put it in writing and they spread the word.
After you’ve created your rule of life print it and put it up somewhere you will see it everyday. Mine hangs in my office and everyday I look at it before I do anything.
Each day when I look at it, I do the final thing needed to create a Rule of Life: I do my very best to follow it.
When I fail, I take my lead from AA, a group who knows how to help people change, and tell myself:
“Keep coming back, it works if you work it.”
To help you create your own rule of life, you can look at mine to get an idea of exactly what one looks like. Remember that your Rule of Life is for YOU and should be created by YOU, so don’t just copy someone else’s.
I hope you will create a Rule of Life and I hope that it will be beneficial to you. Solomon said, “The plans of the diligent lead to profit.” Be diligent and profit.