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On Holy Habits and Realistic Goals

Guidelines for Cultivating Effective Visions and Habits for the New Year

It is December and the year is waning. The calendar year fades away with its annual decline, while the liturgical year renews itself again in Advent. I don’t know about you, but I delight in fresh starts, as long as I carry into the that new beginning a unified vision and the practices to support it.

All classical educators desire to flourish in our vocation, and each new year is an opportunity to hone our vision and bolster the practices that enable us to grow. If you make New Year’s resolutions you may have found that some years your resolutions are more effective than others. Effective goals for the new year pass two tests: They 1) refine the vision, and 2) define habits for flourishing in the coming year. Goals that stick are oriented to a cohesive vision and concrete practices.

When I advocate for a cohesive vision, I mean that each new habit should serve a purpose. In other words, do not just “switch math curriculum” because your students are having trouble internalizing long division. Instead, consider the vision. Is there a reason to switch math curriculum, or would another action step make a bigger difference? It is not likely to be enough to make resolutions regarding practical things without a firm conviction of why those things will advance the goal toward which we reach. After all, there are reasons why we do not already do them, and January 1st is not likely to do away with the obstacles. Humans require clear vision for how new habits will advance goodness in our lives, or they generally fade away.

For example, let us say that your goal is to read aloud to your students every day. That is a noble habit, but why? If your vision remains vague or rooted in somebody else’s vision, no matter how worthy, probably that lovely stack of classic folios will remain unread after a few weeks. We need to own our goals for ourselves. Thus, it is more likely that you will succeed if you have a clearly defined purpose in mind for reading aloud, such as, “I will read aloud to my students for three purposes: to strengthen our relationship, to benefit their language development, and to cherish great stories together.” Create personalized vision statements for each new year’s goals, write them down, and keep them accessible to inspire you until the new habit becomes an established one.

Along with developing clear vision, establish practices that advance that vision. In the classical education world, we do not like words like “measurable” and “practical,” but this is no time to be squeamish. Redemptive habits must be both of those things. Over the course of my adulthood, I have annually vowed to “get on top of the laundry,” which everybody knows is the devil’s chore. Only one year did I succeed, and that was the year that I did one load, from laundry basket to drawer, every day. To return to our original example, instead of “reading aloud more often,” try this, “I will read aloud for 15 minutes every school day at morning time, after memory work review and before nature study. The first read aloud will be Alice in Wonderland.” Excellent and redemptive habits are both manageable and achievable in the mundane reality of our daily lives.

Resist the urge to over-resolve; be intentional to cultivate goals that are realistic. Nobody has room to add a hundred new habits, nor will we have time to implement vague ones. Additionally, chances are that you are already firmly rooted in holy habits that are reaping great rewards. Effective goals are like simple arithmetic: use a basic one-to-one ratio. Prayerfully select a short list of areas in which to grow, and choose one habit for each area on that list. Let us say you create goals in the areas of teaching, reading, personal development, and domestic life. Adapt your short list to what will be effective for you, then create one habit and one vision statement per area. For example, your reading goal vision statement may be, “Read and contemplate a great book every year for the purpose of growing in knowledge and wisdom, cultivating a rich inner life, and developing the habit of challenging my mind and actions through reading.” The practice of that vision may be, “Read one canto of The Divine Comedy per day.” Create one goal per area. Resist the urge to add more.

Since effective goals correspond to simple arithmetic, I find that adding a holy habit almost always requires me to subtract something else. For example, as I read more, I watch less television. As I exercise more often, I spend fewer moments checking Facebook on my iPhone. This happens naturally, but we can also harness this purposefully. Take time to ponder what you will subtract as you decide what to add. It is worthwhile to think about habits in terms of simple addition and subtraction because time is finite. We still have only twenty four hours in a day, and the best laid plans will go awry without making room for them to succeed.

Some people find it effective to launch all of their new practices on January 1st, while others may choose to divide them up over the course of the year, perhaps implementing one habit per month. Add one habit in January, while subtracting one you desire to jettison. Keep that pace and adapt as necessary. Record all of these ideas in a written document or chart that casts the visions and defines the practices for the year ahead.

For those of us for whom the changing year carries the promise of participating in new and holy endeavors, these guidelines can keep our resolutions manageable and effective. May the Lord illuminate the steps before us as we long for His coming and invest in His kingdom.

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