Dear Rachel,

Now that we’re past all the High Holidays, I feel a little despondent. Every year, I make a lot of well-intentioned New Year’s resolutions to be nicer to people, to lose weight, to try and pray every day, and although I start off on the right foot, all I'm left with after a very short time are my good intentions and frustration. What can I do so that this year is not another dud?

Well-Intentioned


Dear Well-Intentioned,

First of all, I don't believe an entire year can be labeled a dud just because you didn't change to the extent you wanted to in the areas you wanted to. We are a work in progress, and we all struggle with things we want toWe are a work in progress change. We mustn’t minimize our accomplishments just because they weren’t on our list of goals. From G‑d’s perspective, it is the struggle itself that is greater and more beloved than actually accomplishing the goal. Only through engaging in the struggle are we called one "who truly serves G‑d."1

Second of all, you have a very important character trait necessary for change—persistence. You haven’t given up on your vision of your improved self, and that’s an important prerequisite for change. The problem might be that perhaps you're not using the right method to do so.

Our sages teach us, “Hergel naaseh tevah”2—what we become accustomed to doing becomes our second nature. This is the key to success—habit.

One reason Judaism has survived for over 3300 years is that Jewish practice involves doing the same things every day, every week, every month and every year at the same times and in the same ways.

Have you ever noticed that brushing your teeth is a very easy, natural thing for you? You don’t even have to think about it, you just know that when you wake up and when you go to sleep you will brush your teeth. That's the power of habit.

Like brushing teeth, it's important to start small and be consistent. Take one small thing and do it for a month. You don't have to pray the whole morning service, just say the Shemah, or even Modeh Ani. You don't have to change your entire lifestyle, just exercise 10 minutes a day or eat a grapefruit for breakfast. And once that has become a habit, you can take one more small step next month.

It's better to give one coin a hundred times than a hundred coins to one person once.3 That's because giving a hundred times, even a small amount, will instill in the giver the habit of giving tzedakah,One mitzvah leads to another charity. We fail in our goals because we try to do too much at one time and don't give ourselves credit for the little bit we do do. And that little bit is very powerful. One mitzvah leads to another4 and one small change leads to another.

So take one small step towards a goal and practice it diligently for a month. And once you’ve created that habit, don’t become complacent—keep growing! Then you’ll be one “who truly serves G‑d.”

Wishing you success,

Rachel

P.S. Check out these related articles for a broader perspective:
Is repentance meaningless if I later repeat the mistake?
Broken New Year's Resolutions