The new year is just barely getting started, but all across the land folks are busy gobbling goodies they’ve passionately pledged to eschew, failing to contort themselves into implausible yoga positions they’ve valiantly vowed to contort themselves into every day, smoking cigarettes they’ve solemnly sworn off of.
The rap on new year’s resolutions — that all too often they’re broken almost as soon as they’re made — is more than a myth. One survey found that 25% of resolutions bite the dust within a week, and about half do so within six months. And these figures may well be low, since people tend to be biased against admitting they blew it.
“Any number of people don’t make resolutions at all because they’re afraid they’ll feel bad if they don’t keep them,” says psychology professor G. Alan Marlatt, director of the Addictive Behaviors Research Center at the University of Washington in Seattle.
They may be missing a golden opportunity. Though many resolutions come to grief fairly quickly, many others live to see another day ... or month ... or year. And at least one study has found that the mere act of resolving to change may increase your chances of actually changing — not by just a little, but tenfold.
So if you’ve made some resolutions — or if you want to hurry up and make some after reading that last statistic — here are some scientifically valid tips for how to maximize your chances of success.
How to make a resolution you can keep
Make sure your resolution is at least theoretically possible and the outcome is at least theoretically in your control. Meaning, don’t resolve to lose 50 pounds by tomorrow or to win $50 million in the lottery.
Specificity is better than generality. Resolving to be a better person is a noble goal, of course. But what exactly is “a better person”? Someone who reads more books? Wastes less time? Gives more money to charity? Uses fewer plastic bags?
Avoid extremes and absolutes. If you resolve that never ever again in this lifetime will you eat the tiniest little tidbit of chocolate, then — besides raising serious doubts about your sanity — your resolution is setting yourself up to fail with just one nibble.
Only make a resolution if you’re strongly motivated to keep it. A 2007 article in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Compass describes how any behavior change involves a competition between conflicting motivations. Suppose you love to sleep in late on Saturday mornings but you resolve to start getting up early instead, to practice juggling. Since your motivation to keep sleeping is pretty big, your motivation to juggle had better be humongous, or you’re likely to drop the ball very soon. (You’d be better off picking a time of day when otherwise you’d be doing chores, washing the dishes, cleaning the litter box...)
Only make a resolution if you’re convinced you can keep it. Maybe you’re so jazzed about juggling you won’t mind getting up early to practice. But you’re a bit of a klutz, so you worry that you’ll never get the hang of it. Then chances are good that you won’t. In one study, the biggest difference between those who kept their resolutions and those who didn’t was their confidence beforehand that they could do it.
“Ask yourself, ‘Am I realistically prepared for this?’ ” says John Norcross, distinguished professor of psychology at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania and author of the 1995 book “Changing for Good.” “If the answer is yes, then by all means make a resolution. But if you’re not prepared, making one is specifically discouraged.”
How to keep a resolution once you’ve made it
Personal peccadilloes, cosmic forces and just about anything in between can keep you from keeping a resolution. So forget about finding a magic bullet to save you from every possible threat to your success, Norcross says.
No matter what else you need, you probably won’t get anywhere without some willpower — the capacity to make yourself choose the stairs instead of the elevator, have an apple for dessert instead of an apple fritter, stay within your budget instead of maxing out your credit card. A dearth of willpower is one of the most common reasons people give for reneging on a resolution.
Different people do have different amounts of willpower, as a number of studies have shown. But are these amounts fixed or can they change? Can you draw on them indefinitely, or will you run low sometimes? Scientists and non-scientists alike have different opinions about these questions.
According to one line of research, willpower is depletable — so if, say, you use too much of it in order to refrain from nagging your spouse, you may not have enough left over to also refrain from eating a brownie.
This theory gels with the widely held belief that you should stick to one or two resolutions. “People should prioritize, not simply have a laundry list and expect to get through them all,” says Kathleen Vohs, an associate professor of marketing at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and a leading contributor to the depletable theory.
But in a paper in Psychological Science last year, researchers present evidence that limits may be “all in your head.” If you believe you can use up your willpower, they maintain, then at some point you may indeed feel you’ve run out and need to take a break. But if you believe your willpower is unlimited (to a large extent), then you may continue to rely on it and — in many cases, at least — find you still have plenty. “I think it’s important for people to know that their willpower isn’t necessarily so limited as they might otherwise think,” says Greg Walton, an assistant professor of psychology at Stanford University and one of the authors of the paper.
Of course, even if you believe in unlimited willpower, you may still choose to restrict your resolutions to a precious few — because you want to give them your full attention.
But not B.J. Fogg, who directs the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford University. “I’m creating 17 new habits right now,” he says. “Others claim you can’t do that, but they’re wrong.”
The key, Fogg believes, is taking resolutions a step at a time, and little baby steps at that. Last year he got into the habit of flossing his teeth twice a day. Eventually. But he worked up to it slowly. “I started out just flossing one tooth,” he says.
Regardless of your approach, until you have a solid plan for how you can succeed — as Fogg did with his dental hygiene — motivation and willpower are unlikely to be enough, Marlatt says.
Other techniques also up the odds that you’ll succeed: announcing your resolution to the world, or at least your little corner of it; keeping track of how you’re doing; and recognizing the “triggers” that can derail your progress and devising ploys to avoid or cope with them.
Another key is practicing long-term thinking. “We tend to think we can indulge today, and tomorrow we’ll somehow compensate for it,” says Alexander Chernev, associate professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and author of the forthcoming “The Dieter’s Paradox.” “But we do that day after day. … and tomorrow never comes.”
One more useful trick is to start doing one thing in order to block yourself from doing something else. “We’re better at forming new habits than breaking old ones,” Fogg says. So if you’ve resolved to quit smoking, or chewing your fingernails, or leaving the cap off the toothpaste, you can help yourself out by replacing the undesirable behavior with a preferable one — e.g., exercising, meditating, putting the cap back on!
And whatever happens, don’t be too hard on yourself. Reward yourself when you’re “good,” and forgive yourself when you mess up.
“On average, smokers take seven tries before they kick the habit,” Norcross says. “That’s only a large number if you think success should be instantaneous. Nobody expects to learn differential equations overnight. Only in behavior change do people expect the whole enchilada by next week.”
In other words, if at first you don’t succeed, resolve, resolve again.