I love this time of year. When January comes into view, it always feels like a fresh start — a chance to wipe the slate clean, give some prayerful thought to the most important areas of life, and make new plans. So I’m intrigued with the findings of researchers who have studied what it takes to accomplish goals.

Remember who you are

In his book, Atomic Habits, James Clear talks about the important role that identity plays. For someone with the goal to stop smoking, for example, choosing the identity of a non-smoker would be a powerful first step. When offered a cigarette, responding with, “No thanks, I’m not a smoker,” would be much more effective than, “No thanks, I’m trying to quit.”

The minute we placed our faith in Christ, we became Christians (2 Corinthians 5:17). However, because we’re subject to so many influences that are inconsistent with that identity, the pursuit of God-glorifying goals requires a daily choosing, a daily remembering. The Bible teaches us to continually “take off” the old self and “put on” the new (Ephesians 4:20-24).

I’ve been mindful of that as I look ahead to 2022, asking, “Lord, as I attempt to manage your resources faithfully, what next financial step would you have me take (1 Corinthians 4:2)? As a steward of this ‘temple of the Holy Spirit,’ what health habits would you have me change (1 Corinthians 6:19)? As a husband, how can I better love my wife as Christ loved the church (Ephesians 5:25)?” When faced with the many temptations that threaten to pull me off course, I’m intent on cultivating the response, “No thanks, I’m a follower of Christ.”

Put a process in motion

Clear also stresses that it’s a mistake to put too much emphasis on outcomes and not enough on the systematic steps it will take to generate those outcomes. This is familiar ground for regular SMI readers. We often emphasize finding, following, and staying with a trustworthy investment process, but it applies to all areas.

Goals and process work hand-in-hand. A goal sets the direction, a process gets you there. A goal is the motivating vision of what you want to achieve, a process is about practicing the daily habits that will lead to the goal.

Infuse it with emotion

When musicians rehearse, they work on their technique — getting all the notes and rhythms correct. Ultimately, though, their joy, and the joy of their audience, comes by playing from the heart. That’s why conductors often finish rehearsals by imploring the musicians to “play it once more, with feeling.”

In their book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, Chip and Dan Heath write about the important role of emotion in pursuing a goal. They use the metaphor of someone riding an elephant. The rider is our logical self. With reins in hand, the rider appears to be in charge. The elephant represents our feeling self. And given the heft of an elephant, once emotion kicks in, logic is just along for the ride!

While emotion can certainly get in our way as investors, it also can be an important, positive factor in the pursuit of our goals. Putting a face on our goals by considering who would be most impacted by their accomplishment is an emotional factor that can bolster our motivation.

For example, my wife and I have a goal of helping our kids pay for college. It has required us to be intentional in designing and managing our budget. But the pursuit of the goal isn’t just about numbers and spreadsheets. It’s about love. When we make the monthly contributions to their college-savings accounts, it never feels like paying bills. We’re pursuing this goal — we’re playing this goal — with feeling.

There ISN’T always next year

As a long-suffering Chicago Cubs fan, I’m well acquainted with the habit of replacing this year’s disappointment with next year’s hope. But we shouldn’t be too cavalier about applying that way of thinking to our lives. The pandemic has reminded many of us of the brevity of life. On the morning that I began this article, a family friend attended the funeral of her father who died from COVID-related causes. He was just 63.

So, as we consider the year ahead, let’s hold it with an open hand and ask, “Lord, if I’m given the gift of all 365 days in 2022, what would You have me do?” And let’s consider how our identity might shape our goals, what process we could follow in pursuit of them, and whose lives would be impacted for the better through their accomplishment.