by Jeff Montgomery
For me, New Year's resolutions have always been kind of a 50-50 proposition.
On the one hand, it's good to start the year resolving to do better at certain things or to start something new. The flip side is that, very often, the resolutions get abandoned and we fall back into our usual patterns. This might make us a bit depressed, if we even think about it, when we look back at the end of the year and see that we didn't do so well at keeping them.
Overall, though, I think that taking some time at the beginning of a year to look ahead and make plans for self-improvement is a good thing. We all have areas that we need to improve, and it's good to periodically take a look to see how we're doing and make adjustments. But improvement doesn't happen automatically. Nothing good is gained if we don't work for it. And in order for the work to be successful we have to think, plan, and follow through.
For Christians, there is the added component that God has a plan for each one of us. In making resolutions and plans to carry them out, we must stay open to God so that He may help us and lead us to do the right things. Proceeding without God's guidance will only lead to frustration and wasted time.
So how do we discern what God wants us to do? And once we know, or have an idea, how do we devise and carry out a plan to reach these goals?
First and foremost, we need to pray. Without that open line to God we have no chance of discerning what He wants us to do. Furthermore, our prayers need to be done at a time when we can be still and listen for God's voice. Many times we pray in the midst of a busy day (which is, of course, fine), but the surrounding activities can make it difficult for us to hear God's response.
His response may not come immediately. We all know that God works on his own time, which often (usually!) bears no resemblance to our own time. So even though we are praying in quiet and listening intensely, it may be some time before we discern any direction.
While prayer is critical and important to this process, we can't overlook the more obvious signs that God sends us. Sometimes He answers our prayers by putting us in certain circumstances, or by having a certain person cross our path, or by causing us to stumble across some information that leads us in the right direction. I think that sometimes we get caught up in expecting some sort of mystical experience, when in fact God speaks to us very practically at times. The overall point is to be open to God speaking to us in many ways.
So once we discern what God needs for us to do, how do we devise a plan of action?
I'm a great believer in keeping things as simple as possible. Devising some complicated plan to stick to your resolutions will make it too much of a burden. Sticking with resolutions is hard enough without the added burden of some over-developed plan. I believe that there are four additional steps, in addition to prayer, to making resolutions that will stand the test of time.
Once we've prayed and determined what resolutions we need to make, we need to narrow down the list to, say, the five most important. Trying to stick with 20 resolutions is nothing more than a recipe for failure. Sticking with five or less will allow us to have a manageable amount of effort.
Next, take the five resolutions and set a specific goal. Do you want to lose weight? Then set a goal of losing 10 pounds over the next two months. Do you want to make a career change? Set a goal of researching and creating a list of new possibilities by the end of February. By setting a specific goal and a specific timeframe we know what we're shooting for. Without those specifics we won't know what we need to do day-by-day to get to where we want to be.
The third step is to devise a specific plan to reach that goal. If your goal is weight loss, then your plan might be along the lines of 'I will exercise six days a week, eat healthy meals, and monitor my weight weekly.' If your goal is a career change, then your plan might be to spend 10 hours a week for the next four weeks researching new careers. If your goal is getting closer to God, then your plan might be to spend 15-30 minutes a day in prayer or reading scriptures. The plan has to be specific and measurable.
In the final step, we must review our progress periodically. Once a month or quarter, we should sit down with our plans and see how well we're doing. Are we losing weight? Do we feel a greater connection to God? Have our career plans begun to form? Periodic review will allow us to make adjustments, or re-commit to the plans we created earlier in the year.
An often overlooked aspect of making resolutions and plans is that we have to be flexible. Planning is all well and good, and if we've spent time in prayer our plans will (hopefully) align with what God wants us to be doing. But sometimes He throws us a curve, and we have to make adjustments. Sometimes we have to change our plans completely. But if we are allowing the Holy Spirit to live within us, we can rest assured that God will be with us no matter the circumstances.
Finally, one critical aspect of this sort of planning that can't be planned or measured is our own commitment. In the end, all of the plans and goals mean nothing unless we commit ourselves to carrying out the plans we've devised. Asking God, on a daily basis, for help in sticking with our plans will insure that we can do just that.
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