An Alternative Approach to New Year's Resolutions

My early January tradition is so predictable that it is almost clichéd. I make a resolution. I break the resolution. It may take a few days, even a month or so, but my resolutions never seem to last. I vow to diet. I go off the diet. I vow to exercise (and maybe even join a fitness center). I stop exercising. I vow to budget. I over-spend. Repeat: My resolutions never seem to last.

Is it possible they do not last because they are "my" resolutions? Put another way, they are always about me (my diet, my exercise regimen, my budgeting). Studies determine that the top 10 commitments Americans made at the beginning of this calendar year were all about what we intended to do in or for our own lives. That, I think, is why those pledges ordinarily fail. When resolutions only have to do with me, (a) there is no sense of accountability, and (b) there is no sense of mission.

So what if I discard the granola and return to the doughnuts? So what if I quit working out and convince myself that I walk enough as it is? So what if I buy a $5 coffee every morning rather than fixing a cup at home before leaving for work? Who's going to call me on it if I simply made those promises to myself? No sense of accountability.

And, if the resolutions are all about me, then who is going to be disappointed if I break them? Who will go hungry or remain lonely or face hardships too big to conquer on their own? No sense of mission.

Perhaps honoring the resolutions we make is more likely to occur if those resolutions are about (or at least involve) others. Take exercise, for instance. If I promise to meet a friend three times a week to walk or work out, I am less likely to ignore that promise because I do not want to disappoint someone who is depending on me. Making a covenant with a friend creates a kind of built-in accountability.

As a person of faith, I take seriously the biblical mandate that "it is more blessed to give than to receive." Thus, I may craft new year's resolutions based on that premise. Those resolutions give me a sense of mission. Suppose I make a vow of financial support or of volunteer service to a local helping agency or a religious institute. That becomes an almost sacred act (something I do not casually dismiss). And the benefits are two-fold. First, every community is flush with individuals whose backs are against life's walls (the homeless, the hungry, abused spouses or children, the vulnerable, the marginalized, the ill, the very young or the very old). Those people cannot always provide for all their own needs. When I step forward to assist, I am actually making a difference in someone's life. That results in the second benefit: When I make a positive difference in someone else's life, I find deeper senses of meaning and joy in my own. It really is win/win. Kindness is cyclical. That which we send out to others returns to us.

Again this year I will no doubt make personal commitments. There is nothing wrong with that. I need to eat less and exercise more. But if history can be trusted, I'm not confident those resolutions will still be in force by February. However, I also plan to make at least a handful of other resolutions -- deeper and more substantive ones. I will resolve to do things that both involve and benefit other people, things that in some way will make the world a little bit better in 2016 than it was in 2015. And the very nature of those resolutions will make me work harder at keeping them. If "my" promises are not really all about "me," maybe they will last... and even will have a lasting impact.

The author is Senior Minister of Marble Collegiate Church in New York City. The church is the oldest Protestant organization in North America in continuous service and has a global following online -- with worshipers in 47 countries connecting through its live-streamed services.