New Year’s resolutions have become somewhat passé in recent years as we recognize more and more that they last about, what? five minutes? But maybe that’s because we’re going about them the wrong way. May I suggest that perhaps achieving a New Year’s goal has more to do with first changing our character than focusing primarily on changing our behaviors?
Now, you might be thinking, “There’s nothing wrong with my character! I’m a good person!” And you’d be right; not saying you’re not a good person. But if we’re truthfully good people, we have to admit that we all have some little character deficit we could be working on, right? And the fact is that it may well be it’s that “one little thing” that’s been keeping us from realizing our goals and, ultimately, our destinies.
Let’s face it, our culture has pretty much ceased to value character as a goal in itself anymore. Don’t think so? When was the last year you heard anyone say that their New Year’s resolution was to develop more patience, to be more giving, or to control their temper?
As goals go, those seem rather dated. Instead, the number one goal for any given new year is to decrease body size: eat less and work out more in some form or fashion. We want to cut sugar or calories or fat or carbs and do more yoga or lifting or palates or cycling or . . . pick a fad. Granted, sometimes we do these things to be healthier and there’s nothing wrong with that, but the principle remains the same: if we first focus on developing character, our other goals will fall into place as natural consequences of changing who we are. Why?
Changing our character is not just about changing our behavior; it’s about changing what we value and about thinking deeply about what kind of person we want to be.
Do we ever really consider that? Do we ever sit down with a pencil and paper and think about what kind of character qualities we need to be the “good person” we want to be? Unless someone brings to our attention that we need to be deliberate about what kind of person we want to be, we breeze through life figuring that good character will just “happen”.
Character development is all about changing our thinking, and therefore our behavior. In other words, we can’t simply skip to “I’m going to lose 25 pounds” without first considering what has kept us from losing it yet – or even gaining it in the first place. Let me demonstrate.
What if, for example, we want to exercise more? We have all the intentions of hitting that gym but, after a few weeks, our resolve just tanks. What to do? First, ID what character quality would get us to the gym on schedule for the rest of our lives. For instance, before beginning any diet, my grandfather always used to say, “I have willpower!” He didn’t. But he did recognize that self-control (willpower) was the key to his success. He just never thought about how to develop it; he just – as we all do – expected it to be there when he needed it. So – what might we need to get us to the gym or away from the cupcake or (fill in the blank)? It might be diligence or faithfulness or discipline. Now – and here’s the rub – if we have trouble with, say, finishing or following through with things (faithfulness), then chances are that that deficit, that inability to finish what we start, will probably be evident in other areas of life as well. But how do we know? Well, do we tend to quit when things get difficult? Or do we procrastinate, promising ourselves that we’ll “get to it” – sooner or later? And sooner never comes? Or do we always feel like “there’ll be time later”? And then there’s not? These are problems with faithfulness.
So what if we want to change that and become more disciplined, more diligent, more faithful? Then we start by building that faithfulness muscle; we begin by being faithful with smaller, easier tasks and working our way up to harder ones.
Think of it this way: doing the dishes every night instead of leaving them till later (or whatever little thing you need to work on) is like a five-pound weight; getting to the gym several times a week is a 500-pound weight. And no one starts with those.
Of course, doing the dishes isn’t that hard. What’s it take? all of 15-20 minutes? But practice it every day and then, after getting to the point where you can’t stand not to do clean-up, add another behavior – write for fifteen minutes a day or study or make lunches the night before or have some quiet time – whatever other thing you haven’t been doing faithfully every day. Then do that until it becomes a habit. One day, you’ll realize that you don’t like stalling or procrastinating or quitting anymore; it’s not who you are. Eventually, there’ll come a day when you can’t not get to the gym on schedule. You’ll be able to lift that proverbial 500-pound weight.
You will have developed faithfulness.
What if you want to quit doing something – a bad habit: swearing or being impatient or losing your temper? First, think. What character quality could replace these behaviors? Patience, of course, or self-control – even compassion. Then practice developing those character qualities before you’re in a pinch: be compassionate before someone ticks you off; give someone a card or a call. Practice being patient in a traffic jam or slow grocery line by imagining that others are just having a difficult day (and not trying to be insensitive). Eventually you’ll begin to think differently about swearing or yelling or breaking things.
The key to developing any character quality is practice, practice, practice. Will you get it right all the time, right away? Possible, but not probable. Begin small by doing one thing at a time, brick by brick, as you build into your life the character qualities that will change you – your thinking and your behavior. Eventually, those changes will lead to the fulfillment of your goals. Make character your New Year’s resolution this year and your destiny will, as a natural consequence, come to pass to its very fullest potential. Why not try it?
No one has ever looked back and regretted making character development a priority.