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A man blowing the shofar during Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, in 2010. SLGCKGC /FLICKR VIA CC BY 2.0

With Rosh Hashana this past week and Yom Kippur on Wednesday, Jews around the world are celebrating a new year and praying for atonement. For the ten days between these two holidays (as well as about a month before in certain circles) two customs emerge, one of which is taking on resolutions for the upcoming year.

Almost every time I’ve had a rabbi talk about picking resolutions to hold, they have always focused on something small. Pray from the book even if you know it by heart, don’t start eating until your parents start, dedicate one hour a day when you won’t say derogatory things about others. They would always explain that if we take more difficult goals we tend to give up more easily. If we make things bite sized, we make it to our end goal step by step.

The other point they make is to pick specific goals. A general goal to learn more or to lose weight can be easy to shirk off or give up on because there is no real plan. It’s a dream, not a goal. Meanwhile, if we pick numbers (say, a hundred books) or plans of action like, counting calories or walking a certain number of steps a day, it increases the chances that we will achieve our goal for the year.

And because willpower is generally weak and we end up failing and making missteps, we need to know how to get back up. In addressing the difficulty of keeping goals, Rabbi Israel Salanter once said that it is easier to learn the entirety of Talmud than it is to change one character trait. For context, at the rate of learning two sides of a  page of Talmud a day, it would take someone seven and a half years to learn all of Talmud. It’s totally normal for it to take longer than that to make significant positive changes to our character. But we can always get up and try again. And sometimes our failed attempts are only precursors to later success.

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There are conflicting studies about how keeping resolutions to yourself makes it more likely that you’ll do it or that you should actually make your resolutions public so other people hold you up to them. There are studies about how to-do lists make goals easier. The truth is that everyone is different. Personally, I find that having clear goals, letting friends know said clear goals and checking in with myself on a regular basis to keep these goals is what brings me to success.

Lots of little things add up and make us into who we are. In a recent speech, one of my rabbis spoke about the little resolutions he’s been making for the past 25 years and how altogether they’ve totally changed who he is. Last year I took a big leap in no longer touching women along with smaller goals like learning more about prayer and Torah. This year I hope to continue so I too can look back 25 years from now.

Whether you’re making your resolutions this week or on December 31, choose incremental goals towards a larger dream and you will (hopefully) emerge successfully.

Have a happy, healthy and meaningful new year!

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