Dwayne Allen Thomas

The Cross-Examined Life

How to Keep Your New Year’s Resolutions

Sometimes it’s all about “why.”

Posted Dec 30, 2019

Lilla Frerichs/Public Domain
Source: Lilla Frerichs/Public Domain

I closed the book, frustrated. This was my fifth time trying to read it. I wasn’t sure if the issue was words like "wherefore" and "thou" or the size of the book, but every time, I stopped shortly after God kicked Adam and Eve out of Eden.

I didn’t know it at the time, but my goal fulfilled the SMART criteria. Reading the entire Bible was specific, measurable, achievable, relevant to my goal of learning more about religion, and something I could do with a reasonable time frame. And yet, five attempts in, I barely finished reading the first few pages.

A few years later, my then-girlfriend and I visited a new church founded by an old friend of hers. After the service, the members gave us pamphlets describing the biblical basis for their beliefs. When I got home, I read one and… what it said the Bible said didn’t ring true. Not because I knew what I was talking about, but because I had never heard anyone espouse this particular set of beliefs before.

I pulled my 10-pound Devotional Bible with annexed concordance off the shelf and found the passages the pamphlets referred to. My gut was right—it didn’t say what they said it said. But what I was reading was more interesting than what the pamphlets said.

I skipped back to the beginning of the book the passage was from. And I read. And then I looked up another passage and read that entire book, too. Soon, I made my way all the back to God creating the heaven and the Earth. And in a few weeks, I read the whole thing.

The difference between my first attempts and finally reading all the way through was my motivation. Researchers would call my first attempts extrinsically motivated and my final attempt intrinsically motivated. Extrinsic motivations come from something outside of you. Intrinsic motivations come from within.

On the surface, it might seem like my initial motivation was internal, but it wasn’t. I had watched a number of biographies where the subject had attained fame and fortune, only to lose it all. In every case, they had recently found or reaffirmed their faith and were making a comeback. I didn’t want that to be me. So I decided to learn about faith first. That type of motivation, called external regulation, is considered to be one of the least effective forms of motivation because it is focused on external rewards, such as avoiding punishment.

However, when I found that the content of the Bible was more interesting than the content of the pamphlets, I was fascinated. I kept reading because I wanted to see what else happened. I pulled out dictionaries to understand archaic and obsolete words. I used the concordance to find connections between different books. I was learning for the sake of learning. This intrinsic motivation is considered the strongest possible motivation.

Most New Year’s resolutions fail, and I would bet it’s for precisely the same reason as I failed. I might say I’m going to read 50 books a year or lose 20 pounds, but if I’m doing it for the sake of the resolution or because I’m trying to get approval from friends or family, then the tediousness of sitting on the couch for an hour a night or saying no to dessert because it’s Tuesday wears on you. But someone else might read 50 books a summer because they simply love to read. Someone else might start losing weight because their ex said they gained weight. The self-interest of showing up the ex somehow trumps the interest of trying to please your current beau, even if you never see your ex again.

So, when creating your New Year’s resolution, one question you should consider asking yourself is “Why am I doing this?” If you find that your reasons stem from something outside yourself, try to find a way to become personally interested in the goal you’re trying to reach. Otherwise, your work on fulfilling your resolutions might end shortly after you’ve taken the first bite of the apple.