Keeping those Good Resolutions

The pastor and health column.

Fred Hardinge, DrPH, RD, is associate di rector, Health Ministries Department, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

January, the time normally reserved for making resolu­tions, was months ago. How are you doing? Are you still working on the resolutions, or have you become discouraged like most of your members and just put that list, or some of the items, out of mind?

Perhaps your list included things such as the following:

  • This year, I’m going to relax and not worry so much.
  • I will eat less and exercise more so I can lose weight.
  • I will spend more time each day in Bible study and sermon preparation.
  • I’ll spend more quality time with my family.

I had to ask myself a question the other day: Why are some of my resolutions the same as last year and the year before? The answer is very disconcerting, especially when I recognize that my church members watch my example.

How is the brain involved in our resolutions?

Our brains have enormous “plasticity.” That means we can create new cells and pathways in the most remarkable ways. At the same time, our brains create strong tendencies to do the same things over and over and over again. These pathways persist for a lifetime, never completely going away.

Lasting change requires estab­lishing new pathways and that takes a lot of practice. Many brain scientists tell us it takes six to nine months to create new pathways that are stronger than the old ones.

Sadly, there are no weeklong pro­grams that magically change us for good.

Making a list of resolutions is easy, but it is far harder to put them into practice. Sometimes we fall into common resolution pitfalls, such as the following:

  • Being vague about what we want. The more specific the resolution, the easier it will be to accomplish. (For example, I will not snack between meals versus I will eat less.)
  • Not making a serious commit­ment. (Sometime this year I will . . .)
  • Becoming discouraged and turn­ing slipups into “give ups.” All of us blow it every once in a while. Remember, we only fail when we fail to try again.

A book by the well-known psy­chologist Dr. Roy F. Baumeister, entitled Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength,* pro­vides some fascinating insights into how our brains work to bring about changes in our lives.

To truly change requires will­power, known as a finite commodity that gets depleted as we use it. Yet at the same time, we strengthen willpower by repetitive use. In many ways, this character trait resembles a muscle. Doing a number of push-ups and then immediately jumping up to see how much you can bench press does not work. Over time, muscles can be built up, but in the short run they get fatigued.

Willpower should be recognized as a precious commodity, so how do we best manage it? Dr. Baumeister suggests several ways:

  • Know when it is freshest and strongest. Willpower is at its peak in the morning after a good night’s rest.
  • Spent it wisely. Prioritize what you spend it on. Do not waste it on insignificant, worthless endeavors. Spend it to cultivate right habits.
  • Be aware of decision fatigue. Few people are aware of this phenomenon. Yet it affects all of us. The more decisions you have to make, the greater the risk of a foolish one.
  • Set goals, but not too many at one time. Working on too many changes at one time usually leads to discouragements and failure.

Too often we try to make our resolutions a reality by ourselves. The help of family and friends can be crucial to success. However, too often we overlook God in our process.

Dr. Baumeister fails to mention this in his book, but the Bible teaches that God is the Great Restorer of the will. Praying, studying the Bible, and meditating on His love restores, does not deplete, willpower. This exists as the one act of will that actually replenishes it!

To be the example God calls me to be, I need to rely more on Him. Fortunately, the apostle Paul described it best when he pro­claimed, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13, NKJV).

As I look at my resolution history, I need that help. How about you?

* Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength (New York: Penguin Press, 2011).


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Fred Hardinge, DrPH, RD, is associate di rector, Health Ministries Department, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

March 2012

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