An Inquiry into New Year’s Resolutions

[1] The New Year engenders a flurry of soul-searching behavior, earnest plans resolving to change current behaviors, introduce new habits and cease old ones. The practice is so common that the U.S. government even has a web page listing the statistically most popular resolutions, including links to resources that will assist in achieving the new goals.[1] Here’s the list for 2012:

Drink Less Alcohol
Eat Healthy Food
Get a Better Education
Get a Better Job
Get Fit
Lose Weight
Manage Debt
Manage Stress
Quit Smoking
Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle
Save Money
Take a Trip
Volunteer to Help Others

[2] The science of change is increasingly sophisticated. If your goal is to successfully change your habits in the New Year, there’s a good chance you can do so, especially if you follow the advice of a researcher such as Charles Duhigg, who has illustrated that changing habits has to do with changing the habit loop.[2] The loop includes an initial “cue,” the trigger for the habit, then the routine itself and the body of the habit. Finally there’s the reward, which tells our brain whether to store the habit for the future or not.

[3] Breaking a habit, or changing a keystone habit (a deep habit that reinforces and shapes other habits), is more easily accomplished if you can identify the cue, routine, and reward, and then experiment in changes with each, thus shifting a new reward into place behind a cue and routine you prefer.

[4] At this point, I bet your interest is piqued. One of the items in the U.S. Government list above is an attractive resolution to you personally. And I’ve outlined in a very succinct form a research-tested strategy for achieving the goal you seek. You can even run off and buy Charles Duhigg’s book to lock in even more strongly on the power of habit and your power over it.

[5] Am I right?

[6] However, as interesting as change is in and of itself, it is incumbent on an ethicist to ask an even more fundamental question about New Year’s resolutions than the rather pragmatic and pedestrian “How?” We are called here to consider the questions “Why?” and “What?” Why should we resolve anything at all? What does a resolution signify within the overall scope of our daily intending and resolving as human beings? And what is a resolution anyway? What does it mean to resolve?

[7] Dig down into a New Year’s resolution and you realize that a resolution is a particular focus on human doing of a specific sort, as compared to all the other kinds of human action one might engage in on a daily basis. Drink less alcohol, for example, and you will still drink other things, and still make choices about what to drink, whether it is water or goat’s milk. Save money, and you won’t spend money in an economy many of us believe needs our regular reinvestment in order to flourish. Volunteer to help others, and you immediately have to start asking yourself which others you will indeed help.

[8] In other words, underneath the popular and annual quest to set New Year’s resolutions is a rather bottomless and impossible quest–gaining clarity about why we choose to do this or that at any level, and how to know those are the proper actions. And this deeper question matters, because it is the only way to get at evaluating whether the resolutions we do resolve are worth our resolution.[3] One might wish–foolishly–to be able to resolve to do just one thing… but human life is not lived this way, doing just one thing. Human life in its flourishing involves thousands of daily decisions and actions. This is part of its glory.

[9] Not only that, but there are endless ways to evaluate various decisions from diverse perspectives. Look at the list above from the U.S. government, and notice how personal, and even selfish, some of them are. Most are certainly admirable on one level–on another level, they are somewhat self-serving, even vain.

[10] I’m reminded in these instances of Mrs. Jellyby of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. Mrs. Jellyby is zealously engaged in supporting missions work in Africa–works at it ceaselessly, in fact–but has no time for her own family or household. Dickens writes, “Mrs Jellyby had very good hair, but was too much occupied with her African duties to brush it.”[4] Many of us would find it admirable to support mission work in Africa. Almost none of us would set as their New Year’s resolution to brush their hair. And yet…

[11] On the other side of this equation, we have the famous quote of Augustine, who said, “Love God and do what you will.”[5] I confess to loving this quote and using it often. But in the concrete it begins to flag a bit. Try it as a New Year’s resolution this year: “This year, I will love God and do what I will.” It very well could result in piously thus deciding to go ahead do whatever the hell you were going to do before you established the resolution.[6] It sounds good as a kind of deontological emancipatory mantra, and in a culture that virtually demands that we live thus-and-so-and-not-otherwise it likely bears repeating, but it does not give much guidance for how we should or could actually spend our time and energy from day-to-day.

[12] So what is the resolution to all of this? How then shall we live? Fastidious and unflagging attention to our daily decisions may get tiresome, but it certainly isn’t a bad idea to at least spend a few days reviewing and examining our lives to observe not how we intend to live, but how we actually live. This is what it would mean to gain “resolution” on our resolves.

[13] But we may not want–or need–to spend all our waking hours in such attentive examination of our actions. This could be–likely would be–completely exhausting. In this sense, the Augustinian dictum is worth our attention. Love God, and then be free in your daily actions. If your love towards God is rightly ordered, all the daily details and decisions will fall in line.

[14] It might seem facile, but I believe is nevertheless true, that this is what it means to resolve the issue of New Year’s resolutions. In the very moment when all the focus is on the pragmatic and utilitarian, hammering out the details of how we will, for real and this time really truly do what we have resolved to do, world be damned! a step back away from the specific resolutions to gain some resolution on the nature of our resolving is a good way to start the year.

[15] So now what are you going to do having read this essay to its conclusion?




[3] It is worth noting the other definitions of “resolve” and “resolution.” In addition to the traditional New Year’s definition, which might simply be “determination,” resolution also refers to “clearing up,” like getting better resolution on a computer screen or camera, or resolving a conflict by bringing greater clarity, even a solution. This essay is an attempt at widening the scope of what a New Year’s resolution entails, connotatively.



[6] Of course, on another level this is true of any resolution, because a resolution is only a resolution. It is lived out not in repeatedly saying it, but in the doing.

Clint Schnekloth

Clint Schnekloth is a pastor and author of Mediating Faith: Faith Formation in a Trans-Media Era. He also blogs at