New Year’s resolutions are a great idea. The start of a new year is the perfect time to make important changes in your life, changes that will help you to become the person you want to be. A healthier diet. Regular exercise. Reading the Bible every day. All of these are important things that will shape your character for good.
The heart of self-discipline is the ability to say “No” to the wrong things so that you can say “Yes” to the right things.
We want to instill practices in our lives that make us better people. We want to form good habits and participate in daily spiritual disciplines. We want to eat better and work out more. Hence, New Year’s resolutions.
But I’ve discovered, after trying this every year for about 20 years, that turning on a dime is nearly impossible. Most of us are like battleships. We need a lot of time and energy to change course. Of all the resolutions I’ve made over the years, I was only ever able to keep one of them. (I read through the whole Bible in 2011, so I’ve pretty much punched my ticket to heaven.) That’s about a 2% success rate. Yikes!
Most of the people I know are close to that number with the resolutions they’ve been able to keep. While some people are significantly better at keeping resolutions, most of us feel lucky to have stuck to one or two in our entire lives. All of this failure makes me want to stop trying. Maybe you’ve reached that point. I know I have. I’m ready to try something new.
New Year’s resolutions don’t work because we’re not used to living lives of self-discipline.
Whether it’s eating out or sleeping in, the pleasures of life are no longer something I enjoy occasionally, but rather pleasures to which I feel entitled every day, every meal. The problem isn’t that I’m not saying yes to the right things; it’s that I’m saying yes to the tiny pleasures of life all the time. Saying “Yes!” to these tiny pleasures, these entitlements, too often leaves no room to say “Yes!” to the things that create character in your soul.
I drink Coke at almost every meal.
I get on Facebook and Twitter dozens of times each day, at work and home, stealing time from my vocation and my family.
I read sports blogs instead of good books.
I watch Netflix instead of exercising.
This list could go on and on. While these things are not bad in and of themselves, and they can be part of a healthy and balanced life, what I’ve discovered is that the development of my character is won or lost in a thousand tiny decisions each day. Trying to cut out sugar, Coke, or Facebook all at once on January 1 just doesn’t work for most people. It has never worked for me. So I want to try something new, and I’d like to invite you to participate with me.
The development of my character is won or lost in a thousand tiny decisions each day.
In Mark 8:34-35, Jesus said:
Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.
I’m convinced that following Jesus is not a decision I make once, but is a long series of decisions made everyday. It’s not a prayer I pray once, but a persistent prayer of “No!” against the entitlements and temptations of my heart. You have to learn to say “No” before you can say “Yes.” You have to lose your life before you can save it.
I need to learn to say “No,” but I know that I can’t learn it all at once. I’ve tried that. But maybe I can learn to say “No” one decision at a time. I don’t need to cut Twitter out of my life, but I do need to learn to say “No” when I’m tempted to scan through it eight times at work or while my kids are awake. That’s what this is about: cutting back what is out of a balance rather than cutting it out of my life completely. I know myself too well to think that I can do the latter at this point, but I remain optimistic about being able to do the former.
So here’s my plan.
Identify some of the things to which you feel entitled, and write them down. It could be anything. Eating out. Watching TV. Sleeping in. Drinking alcohol. Buying clothes. Facebook. Comments sections on news websites. (Okay, that one you should cut out completely!) Wherever you find yourself indulging, that’s where your entitlement lives. Identify your entitlements, write them down, and keep them somewhere you’ll see them everyday. Clarity is the first step toward victory, and writing is important for remembering.
Say “No!” to one of your entitlements every day. Have a glass of water at lunch instead of Coke. Stay off of Facebook or Twitter while at work. Put your phone away when you get home and interact with your roommates, spouse, or kids. It’s not about saying “No” to something forever; it’s about saying “No” to an entitlement right now so that you can say “Yes” to something better and more important. This is how you win the battle for self-discipline: denying one little entitlement at a time.
Share your experiences – the victories and the failures – using the hashtag #yearofno. At the risk of being both cheesy and self-congratulatory, I think it’s important to share this stuff with each other because self-discipline isn’t something I can do by myself. I’ve tried that already, dozens of times, and failed every time. We need each other for celebration and accountability. So when you say “No!” to that second dessert, or cigarette, or Netflix binge, share it on Facebook or Twitter with the hashtag #yearofno so we can all celebrate with you. (Of course, if your entitlement is social media, find an appropriate time to share it. Hint: Not when your kids are asking for your attention!)
It’s not about saying “No” to something forever; it’s about saying “No” to an entitlement right now so that you can say “Yes” to something better and more important.
If this is something that you would like to do, you don’t have to sign up for anything or even tell me. You can just start saying “No!” to your entitlements and use the hashtag on Twitter or Facebook. Then, if you see someone else doing it, you can offer them encouragement and support. Feel free to share this post so that other folks can know what you’re doing and participate, too.