A SIMPLE YET PROFOUND INSIGHT FOR GOAL-SETTING AND RESOLUTIONS
It is my conviction that we often fail to fulfill our New Year’s resolutions and other life goals because we don’t set those goals low enough.
Yes, you read correctly. An enemy of succeeding with our resolutions is thinking too idealistically, striving to reach goals that are patently unrealistic and in some cases, even unwise. I’ve discovered that whether the realm for my goals is physical (weight loss, exercise), financial (starting a savings account, paying off a debt) or spiritual (time alone with God), something is definitely better than nothing. Allow me to explain and to illustrate.
Spending Time with the Lord
The nationally known Christian leader and author spoke to hundreds of Christian men, primarily laymen, who were attending a conference. With a robust voice and energetic gestures, he challenged the men to make their time alone with God a higher priority. Indeed, he addressed a definite need. The research on how much time churchgoing men spend in personal devotions is disconcertingly low. Then the speaker challenged the men with an exceptionally high mandate: “Each one of you should dedicate yourselves to spending one hour each morning with God before you go to work. Nothing less will do!”
Why do I cringe at his challenge? (Apart from the fact that some godly people prefer having their devotions in the evening.)
One man within earshot of the speaker already averaged 15 minutes each morning for Bible reading and prayer. Due to his respect for the speaker, he resolved to strive for an hour. He set his alarm earlier and gave it his best shot. After a month, he had averaged only 25 minutes each day. As a sensitive, serious-minded follower of Christ, he felt like a failure because he fell so far short of the standard imposed by the speaker. Discouraged, he eventually shucked the lofty goal. The 15 minutes he had been spending with God became more of a chore than a joyful encounter because his inability to meet the expectation shredded his self-concept as a disciple of Christ. Adding 10 vital minutes to the time each day should have enhanced his satisfaction, but it didn’t.
Realistically, a significant percentage of the men at the conference, despite their faith in Christ, were not spending any unhurried time with Him consistently. They uttered brief sentence prayers during the day as needs surfaced. Occasionally they took time with their Bibles, but they didn’t even average the 15 minutes a day that I cited for the first guy.
Would it have been wiser for the speaker to challenge men who weren’t consistent in their quiet times to join a 9:59 club (nine minutes, 59 seconds)? Strive for that attainable goal each day for a couple of months to establish a habit, then increase time incrementally, perhaps with the ultimate goal of a half-hour a day. And for those who already average 10-15 minutes, call for another five minutes a day for a month, along with concrete suggestions on how to spend the additional time.
Unrealistic goals have the opposite of the desired effect. They demotivate and hinder achievement. Fall short of an unrealistic goal and the failure siphons off confidence in our capacity for long-term change and achievement. Yes, goals should stretch us a bit, but not discourage us.
If you mentor new Christians who have no habit whatsoever of spending daily time in prayer and Bible reading, challenge them to meet with Christ and to feed their soul. Yet do so carefully and realistically. In addition to showing them how to spend this time and providing practical resources, celebrate their progress, no matter how slow or incremental it is.
It’s sobering to read that 80% of resolutions for the new year fail by the second week of February. The most commonly quoted number of days for forming a new habit or behavior is 21 days. Yet the most extensive research on the subject of habit formation says that it takes an average of 66 days to solidify a new habit. If that’s the case, starting slowly and experiencing success, without an unreasonably high standard of change to achieve, increases the likelihood that the new behavior will stick.
When it comes to cultivating a personal walk with the Lord, something is better than nothing. (Besides, enhancing our time alone with the Lord is ultimately not a matter of gritting our teeth and exerting more willpower. It’s a matter of falling deeper in love with our Savior.)
As a young husband and father, I wanted to save for long-term financial goals, such as our two young boys’ education and our retirement. But I assumed I had to have a lot more income to bother with it. If I couldn’t save at least $100 each month, I figured why bother with the effort at all since so little would accumulate.
Oh, if I had only understood how compound interest works over a long period of time, and what a little bit saved regularly could do for us as a family. To my chagrin, I didn’t start a serious savings account or begin setting money aside for retirement until I was in my late 40s. In retrospect, even on a limited income, I can think of ways we could have tightened our belts and regularly put a little money aside, perhaps $10 a week.
If only I had been as convinced then as I am now that something is better than nothing!
If my wife and I had saved just $10 a week for the first 30 years of our marriage, assuming a relatively modest gain of 5% a year during those three decades, by 2001 we would have accumulated a total of $36,176.03.That’s a whole lot more than nothing!
In relation to mortgage debt, I acted with greater wisdom. In 1995, we obtained a home with a 15-year mortgage, finally able to pay the extra each month to avoid a much longer indebtedness and much greater outlay of money on the house. Within a couple of months, the mortgage company offered us a way to save three full years of principal and interest payments by adding a modest amount to the principal just once each quarter, an amount we could manage. (I know that a person can do this on his or her own and pay off the principal much earlier, but I wanted it built into my required payments so I wouldn’t be tempted to route the money to other things.) I forget the precise total amount we saved, but it was over $20,000. I vividly recall the dance I did the day we made the final payment and accomplished a totally debt-free status, in 12 years instead of 15. (Thank you, Lord, that my dance back in 2007 didn’t go viral on social media!)
When it comes to saving money or paying off debt, something is always better than nothing. Establish good habits and sound behaviors by setting low, attainable financial goals. Then the feeling of success will gradually nudge you to set those goals higher.
I still see ads on TV and in magazines promising a 15-pound weight loss in the first two weeks of someone’s new diet plan. Even if we don’t purchase those plans, such ads seduce us and make us think that we need to lose a lot of pounds quickly in order to reach our goal. But that’s patently untrue, and also unwise. Their promises breed impatience in those of us who keep trying to slim down. Nutritionists and physicians suggest losing no more than 4-8 pounds a month (2 lbs. a week tops), and to utilize an eating/nutrition plan that we can sustain and enjoy over time. Try to lose weight too quickly, and we don’t cultivate new ways to partake healthily.
I learned this the hard way. As a young adult, I set a new year’s goal of losing 70 pounds in three months. During those months, I attended grad school full-time, worked part-time as a writer, and exercised vigorously more days than not. Yet the diet I had read about in a reputable magazine, called “The Working Man’s Diet,” allowed only 700 calories a day, plus called for a complete fast (except water) from Friday evening to breakfast on Monday. (The recommended minimum number of calories for a young adult male who’s physically active is about three times that number.)
I stuck to the plan and reached the goal, proudly taking photos of the “new me” who weighed less than I did back in high school.
But….. (you knew that was coming).
After a few weeks, I stopped fasting on weekends because I began fainting. Not just feeling woozy, but literally collapsing on our apartment floor after suddenly standing up from a reclining or sitting position. I made the mistake of not being under a doctor’s care during such extreme food deprivation, and not finding alternative ways to receive the nutrition I needed. The plan I followed focused on short-term loss rather than the cultivation of long-term, healthier eating habits. I didn’t learn to enjoy and to appreciate new, better-for-me foods that had not been part of my past regimen.
You guessed it. Despite continuing to exercise regularly, after I stopped “The Working Man’s Diet,” I began gaining back the weight even without eating as much as I had before the crash diet. Within a couple of years, I gained back all the weight.
When it comes to losing weight, something is far better than nothing. Especially if better health is the ultimate goal instead of less weight.
Who hasn’t resolved to exercise more frequently at the start of a new year? January typically sees a huge boost in health club memberships that the majority of new clients stop using regularly within a few months. Once again, we tend to set our expectations too high, shooting for an hour a day, five days a week. But by the time we drive to the fitness center, complete a workout and get back home or to the office, it takes a lot more time than we anticipated, time we typically don’t have. We waste money and our resolve dissipates because we didn’t set our goal low enough.
The best exercise equipment is free: our limbs. Someone who has been sedentary, then suddenly sets a standard of walking for an hour a day, or even a half-hour, is too lofty in his or her initial expectations. Start with 10 minutes or a half-mile. Increase the pace and length of the walk gradually. For articles on the medical and psychological values of walking, google “benefits of walking” and skim the various articles. The research-based advantages of consistent walking will surprise you.
When it comes to exercise, something is better than nothing.
Applying the Maxim
Want to read more books in 2021? Strive for one more each month, rather than one more every week.
Want to write letters more often to your loved ones? Set a goal of one more letter a month rather than one more a week, and keep each to a page in length. That space limitation will make the task seem more manageable. Compose the letter in handwritten form, since this form of communication, due to its rarity in the 21st century, is perceived as more personal and packs more of a positive emotional wallop on the recipient than an email or typed letter.
Setting goals lower at first will instill within us deep satisfaction at reaching goals. That sense of satisfaction and renewed confidence will then spur us to set more challenging standards over time.
There are a number of things that spawn despondency within me. I don’t want to add another to the list: falling short of unrealistic goals.
How have you successfully applied the “something is better than nothing” maxim? Tell me about it.
If you question the validity of this maxim, tell me why.
In what area can you achieve more by setting your goals lower?