How to Make and Keep Your New Years Resolutions the Catholic Way
By Stacie Hiserman
We have all faced the same problem time and again when January rolls around. Excited about the start of a new year, we set for ourselves resolutions to change an undesired behavior or accomplish a personal goal. But long list or short, we often experience failure by the end of the month.
So why do we fail and what should we do?
Maybe we are looking at the making and execution of resolutions in the wrong light.
What is the purpose of a New Years resolution?
For Catholics, a resolution is an opportunity to acquire virtuous habits or negate bad habits.
This means our reasons for a resolution should involve something greater than ourselves!
Why are habits important?
Like brushing our teeth every morning and night, a habit, once acquired, becomes a regular practice for us.
If we think of a resolution in terms of a goal for just the year, we will fail to cultivate a habit. Instead, we should think in terms of eschatology (the study of the ‘end things’). Our ultimate end is to get to Heaven, so our immediate end—in this case the acquiring of good habits—should be a lifelong endeavor, so that we are prepared for our ultimate end!
Giotto, “The Last Judgment”, Cappella Scrovegni in Padua (1306)
But don’t be fooled—our resolutions need not all be spiritual. As humans, we are body-soul composites and as Catholics, we staunchly believe in the dignity of the human body.
Pope St. John Paul II wrote in his Theology of the Body, “The body, in fact, and only the body, is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and the divine. It has been created to transfer into the visible reality of the world, the mystery hidden from eternity in God, and thus to be a sign of it” (TOB 19:4).
After all, God Himself took on flesh in the Incarnation. Our bodies are good, and making resolutions to care for their physical and mental well-being (in a healthy and balanced) is commendable.
Are good habits really virtues?
To answer this question, we can take a few pointers from The Angelic Doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas.
In his usual structure in the Summa Theologica, his most comprehensive and best known work, St. Thomas first presents a series of objections to his argument when he asks the question: “Whether human virtue is a habit?”
One objection he lays out is this: virtue is a free-will act and habits do not fall into that category—habits are done automatically, and not by the power of the will. Otherwise, wouldn’t we merit continuously, even by the habit of sleep?
Next, in answer to this objection, Thomas makes a fascinating distinction. Habits are virtues because we take action and we will to dispose ourselves to a particular virtue, and thus can merit by this habit for as long as we keep it.
Why do we fail to keep resolutions?
We have the best of intentions for starting afresh, but our commitment too often fades. Why?
The execution of our resolution is an important factor.
Here are a few of our common pitfalls:
1. We rely on emotions instead of the will.
Emotions will not see us through the cultivation of a habit. Good habits, or virtues, require strength. After all, the word virtue comes from the Latin virtus, meaning ‘strength.’
According to University College London research, 66 days is the approximate amount of time it takes to form a new habit. When our commitment begins to dwindle at the end of January, we are lacking strength. We must stick with it.
Breaking a habit is even more difficult. They suggest that new habits must replace and become dominant over the old bad habits, so there is a stronger good influence to oust the bad behavior. We must practice the very virtue that negates the vice.
2. We make them for the wrong reasons.
Modern psychology indicates that people who break bad habits for moral reasons or because of personal values will be more successful at breaking them than those who attempt for reasons of peer pressure.
Also, we tend to make resolutions solely about ourselves. Instead, we should make them out of love for something greater.
Venerable Bishop Fulton J. Sheen indicates in his writings that “Evil habits are not driven out by our hate of them (for we do not always hate them properly.) They are crowded out by our love of something else. The new love that takes possession of us must be bigger than ourselves… for it is ourselves which need amendment…No new, competing love is large enough except the love of God Himself, with all that that love makes us long to do.”
3. Our lofty resolutions are noble, but can be unrealistic.
Before we commit, we often do not consider our state in life. Before we set the bar too high, a quick examination will cue us in on whether our resolution is right not only for us, but also for our loved ones. Will it negatively impact my family in any way? Will I be able to carry out the duties of my vocation well?
If your resolution involves prayer or spiritual practices, it is best to seek out a spiritual director to keep you on a straight path. We must ask ourselves where we are in our spiritual lives.
In The Interior Castle, St. Teresa of Avila likens the soul to a series of mansions. She says, “If this castle is the soul, clearly no one can have to enter it, for it is the person himself: one might as well tell some one to go into a room he is already in! There are, however, very different ways of being in this castle; many souls live in the courtyard of the building where the sentinels stand, neither caring to enter farther, nor to know who dwells in that most delightful place, what is in it and what rooms it contains…As far as I can understand, the gate by which to enter this castle is prayer and meditation.”
How should we execute a resolution?
Apart from avoiding the pitfalls, here are four practical tips for keeping a New Year’s resolution:
1. Pair your resolution with a habit you have already cultivated.
This is one way to cue the behaviors you are trying to achieve. Choose the same time or location in which to perform your new practice everyday.
For instance, if your resolution is to pray the daily Rosary (Our Lady asked this of us at Fatima!), choose a time that works best for you, or if you have a family, a time that works for everyone’s schedule. Say, right after dinner dishes or at a very particular time, like 8:30pm. Consistency is key.
2. Avoid the occasions of falling into your old bad habit.
Sins are bad habits, but bad habits are not always necessarily sins. Ven. Fulton Sheen’s words ring true either way: “Avoiding the occasions of sin is the easiest way of avoiding sin itself.”
Certain environments, foods and drinks, etc. might be occasions for neglecting to break our bad habit. Which means they are hindrances to forming our new, good habit.
For example, if your resolution is to pray the Rosary daily, but you watch TV after dinner and seem to never have time to pray your Rosary. Then, avoid the occasion of your bad habit. Do not turn on the TV or connect your device until you have prayed your Rosary. No matter what, no excuses accepted! That way, you might run out of time to watch TV, but you will never neglect your Rosary! A good habit will be formed and your resolution will become part of your life!
3. Identify your learning style. Then put this knowledge into action.
If another set of reminders or motivators is needed for cultivating virtue, discover whether you are primarily a visual, auditory, reading/writing, or kinesthetic learner. Students often use this method for study, but it can be used for the school of virtue as well, until you have formed your habit!
If you are a visual learner, you prefer to take in information via charts, graphs, and diagrams. Craft something that will visually remind you of your commitment to your resolution.
Auditory learners describe people who learn best when information is heard or spoken. Consider asking a friend or loved one to hold you accountable and encourage you along the way. Or, set an alarm as a reminder.
Reading/Writing preference learners prefer information to be presented using written words. Make yourself a list of reasons why you want to form that habit.
Kinesthetic learners prefer using tactile experiences or physical activity to apply new information. Referring back to tip number one, use some activity you normally carry out to jumpstart a mental reminder of your resolution.
4. Pray and meditate.
Most importantly, incorporate prayer and meditation into everything you do. We can do great things only through the help of Our Lord and Our Lady.
St. John Chrysostom, often called the golden-mouthed, once said:
“It is simply impossible to lead a virtuous life without the aid of prayer!”