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How to Achieve Your New Year's Resolutions

A few years ago I read that only 8 percent of the people who make New Year’s resolutions are successful in achieving their goals (which confirmed my intuitive estimate based on my friends and me). As a result, I resolved to stop making New Year’s resolutions, but of course, I failed at that one, too! 

When on Yom Kippur we ask for God’s forgiveness there are two instances in which our plea is not granted. The first is when we hurt another person and fail to ask for their forgiveness. The second, which is less known, is when we repent with the knowledge that if we face a similar temptation in the future, we would succumb, and then repent again. While the first case is logical, since Jews believe that only the victim can forgive the offender, not even God, the second has been puzzling me since I first learned about it as a child. I couldn’t understand what kind of a person would have such chutzpa and dare to be so dishonest with God? But as I grew older I started to understand the depth of the idea. It is not that we plan to repeat the bad behavior, but rather we truly feel bad about it and want to change it. However, we have enough experience, just like with the New Year’s resolutions, that makes us doubt our own ability in succeeding. 45 percent of Americans see this time of the year as an exciting opportunity for a fresh start, but most fail.

Look at the top 10 New Year’s resolutions for 2015:  lose weight; get organized; spend less, save more; enjoy life to the fullest; stay fit and healthy; learn something exciting; quit smoking; help others with their dreams; fall in love and spend more time with family. All these items seem important and achievable, so why are we unsuccessful in obtaining them?

We are not so different from our ancestors. When God gave His top 10 commandments to the people of Israel, they immediately took upon themselves to observe them all, but couldn’t even keep the first one (creating the golden calf) for more than a few days. Our problem is that we don’t know how to set reasonable goals. We expect to be able to shift from one end of the spectrum to the other in a short period of time. For most people, there is nothing wrong with wanting to shed a few pounds in the following year, only that we tend to set a goal like going back to the size we wore in high school. And when we don't meet that unreasonable goal, we fill ourselves with feelings of anxiety and lower our self-esteem.

The other mistake we make is using absolute statements about what we want to accomplish. “I am going to have dinner with my family 5 nights a week.” It may work for the first month, but a few late meetings one week followed by traveling and we give up on the whole plan. 

It is also important to define our resolutions the right way. By saying “I will stop being so messy,” I provoke negative feelings and put myself down even before I start. “I’m planning to be more organized” is much better and it turns the resolution into a positive plan of action. What could make it even better is being more specific. “I’ll make sure that my desk is clear every Friday before Shabbat” significantly increases the odds of success.

The greatest lesson comes from our tradition: We are taught we are all a work in progress and change comes in small steps. Our goal as Jews is not to be perfect but to be a little bit better than before. If my goal for the next year is to be more patient, I first determine, without being judgmental, where I am on the spectrum when 1 is complete impatience and 10 is pure patience. If I’m at 5 and make a resolution to get to 10 by the end of the year (as we normally do), I would probably fail. But if I set my goal to get to 6 and I have a plan of how to get there, I will. And then follow each year with an incremental change.

I wish you all a wonderful 2016.


Rabbi Alon Levkovitz

Fri, December 4 2020 18 Kislev 5781