In previous years, people would ring in the New Year with noisemakers, large crowds, and dropping balls. My husband Steve and I have often taken a quieter approach, spending the days around the start of the new year planning for the months ahead. But after weeks of opening Christmas cards that all sound the same theme––nobody’s plans panned out in 2020––we’re left wondering how we should go about planning for 2021? Should we even bother?
The book of James offers perspective:
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that” (James 4:13-15).
James tells us that it’s not planning that’s the problem, but presuming––taking for granted that our will is God’s will, rather than the other way around. James isn’t condemning planning for travel or profitable business activity, but rather, assuming that your travel and business will unfold according to your plans, with no regard for how the Lord might move you this way or that. 2020 humbled us. We are not in control. We are small, and circumstances swirl around us, with no regard for how they mess with our plans.
But this is no reason to neglect planning for the year ahead. Scripture is full of encouragement to consider our ways (Haggai 1:5,7), count the cost (Luke 14:28), seek counsel (Prov. 15:22), understand the times in which we live (1 Chron. 12:32), and recognize how short our lives are in order to grow wise (Psa. 90:12).
Keep planning, stop presuming
God tells us to submit our plans to him, asking him to guide us in our decisions, to bless us in our endeavors, and to strengthen us to trust him should he cause things to unfold differently that we want them to. In the process, we reap several benefits—unity, intentionality, and living in reality. Let’s unpack these one by one:
Family unity. It takes effort to agree on a shared plan. But the alternative is pulling in different directions all year long. Over the years, we’ve moved from a battle of the wills to sharing a common mission. Whether you can take a couple of days away, or just a few hours in a coffee shop, it’s worth making time to talk through and then integrate your commitments, expectations, and hopes for the year ahead. Working to agree on your priorities for the next 12 months has the potential to produce much clarity, unity, and fruitfulness in your family.
Intentionality. It can feel overwhelming to realize how much will be required of you in the year ahead––and that’s just the stuff you know about in advance. But agreeing on which items to include at the start makes it less likely that you’ll be sidetracked when distractions arise. Getting your shared priorities down on paper also makes it more likely that you’ll do what you’ve decided is essential and even what’s desirable. Without planning, it’s easier to end up frittering your days away on time wasters, never getting to what was most needed and most enjoyed. Planning helps you avoid the pitfall C. S. Lewis described in Letters to Children:
Remember that there are only three kinds of things anyone need ever do. (1) Things we ought to do. (2) Things we’ve got to do. (3) Things we like doing. I say this because some people seem to spend so much of their time doing things for none of these three reasons…
Reality check. We tend to think we can do more than we possibly can in less time than it actually takes. Looking at just one commitment in isolation, it’s easy to think you can get it done. Writing them all down provides a helpful reality check. When you start compiling a list of all the commitments of everyone in the family––work, school, church, social, travel, etc.––you feel your limitations. You can’t do everything, but rather than defensively responding to whatever happens to be right in front of you, it’s much better to do what you decide is most important. That requires setting priorities.
To do that, we look at our calendars to see what’s coming in the months ahead, talk about what should be most important in the next four quarters, and list the milestones we, and our children, will reach. We’ve found it helpful to ask a few questions to help us identify, and remember, what will be important in the coming months. Questions like:
- What are our major commitments?
- What will we celebrate?
- Where will we travel?
- What ministries will we support?
- What are our health needs and goals?
- What are our learning and reading goals?
- What home maintenance or improvement projects should we take on?
- What are our financial opportunities or limitations?
- What will our daily and weekly routines look like?
- Where do we need to grow spiritually?
- What would shape the year ahead most dramatically?
Do you have a baby on the cusp of potty training? That will require a different focus than a toddler who will be starting kindergarten, an adolescent who’s a recent convert and is considering baptism, or a son or daughter who’s ready to head to college. How about noteworthy birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, or family reunions? Different seasons will require different plans. And the achievement of all these milestones benefit greatly from planning ahead.
After we have a broad outline of what will fill our time, we invite our kids to join the conversation. When they were little, we asked them what they like doing most, as a family, when we have vacations or free Saturdays. Together we would make a list that included things like picnics, neighborhood bike rides, roasting marshmallows outside, bowling, and trips to the library. We also talked about fun activities and tourist attractions nearby we would enjoy visiting in the year ahead. We would tape that list to the fridge and refer to it when we saw free time on our calendar. It gave us shared things to look forward to and cut down on disagreements about how to spend those blocks of time.
Now that our kids are older, they bring their commitments, important dates, aspirations, and expectations, too. Including their input isn’t always seamless. But even imperfect planning is better than none. And it gets easier to plan the more you do it.
The power of routine
Writing a plan is the starting place. But to really get things done, you have to put them into your routine. Is exercise important to you? You likely have a regular time of day and days of the week when you work out. How about family discipleship? If it’s not part of your daily rhythm, it’s not likely to happen regularly. The same thing goes for church involvement, hosting friends, reading the Bible, family meals, budget review, reaching out to neighbors, the list is endless. Whatever is most important to you is what you make time for. And what you make time for is what you will get done.
The best thing about working to fit priorities into your routine is that inertia begins to work for you instead of against you. Any time you take on a new commitment, your current routine works against you, and it’s tempting to fall back into old patterns, but if you press through to start a new routine, you can begin to see inertia working for you. I remember seeing that happen when we started trying to add family devotions with Bible reading after dinner. The first few nights were a struggle as it disrupted patterns we already had. Our 4-year old, especially, was thrown off and often seemed distracted. But at the beginning of the second week, he surprised us when he went and got the Bible and set it beside Steve’s plate—to have ready for our new routine.
Knowing the power of routine makes a review of our regular patterns a key part of our planning each January. What will our daily, weekly, and monthly routines look like? What will yours?
Plan with prayer
Most importantly, begin your planning with prayer. The evil one is keen to disrupt this sort of intentional work through all manner of distractions: spilled drinks; bickering or distracted children; incoming text messages or Post-Christmas Sale! e-mails; as well as bigger challenges of disagreements between spouses over what the plan and priorities should even be. We have learned, and must relearn––every year it seems––that it’s always wise to ask the Lord for protection, help, and wisdom at the outset.
No matter how our plans unfold in 2021, God’s good, all-wise plans will stand:
I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is none like me,
declaring the end from the beginning
and from ancient times things not yet done,
saying, “My counsel shall stand,
and I will accomplish all my purpose,” (Isa. 46:9-10)
For unity in your family, for realizing your limitations, and for doing what you must and most want to do, it’s worth making the effort to plan humbly and diligently, even in a year that’s difficult to plan. We should work heartily, knowing that we will do this or that, if the Lord wills.