You ate too much, drank too much, spent too much and forgot the address of your gym. And now that the holiday dust has settled, you’re hoping to wrestle all that bad behavior into submission with a set of New Year’s resolutions long enough to scare even the surgeon general.
Good luck with that. Seriously. You’re going to need it.
About 40 percent of Americans make New Year’s resolutions each year and losing weight – no surprise, considering all those holiday goodies – is usually No. 1, followed by a slew of hopeful, healthful habits. Ironically, losing weight and getting fit are also at the top of the list of the most commonly broken New Year’s resolutions, along with life-improving goals like quitting smoking, eating healthier, getting out of debt, spending more time with family, managing stress and cutting back on booze.
Studies show that about 75 percent of people are able to keep a resolution for at least a week and 55 percent can to stick to their guns – and their goals – for a full month. How many resolutions are still going strong, say, six months later? Forty percent, according to a study of New Year’s resolutions by researchers at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania. How many people are actually successful in achieving their resolution? A lackluster 8 percent.
“Resolutions to change your behavior are a powerful reminder that what you are doing – or not doing – is out of sync with what you deeply care about,” said Dr. Jonathan Bricker, a psychologist and public-health researcher at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. “The resolution is an intention to put those in sync. But unfortunately, the vast majority of people do not keep them.”
Bricker, who knows a thing or two about how to make lasting behavioral changes, blames a number of factors for our doomed resolutions.
First, our motivation – the very reason behind a resolution -- may be unclear. For example, we’ll decide to make a change based on someone else’s desire rather than our own. Second, we’ll make vague or unrealistic plans for ourselves, like “I want to be more productive at work” or “I want to lose 50 pounds in a month.” Another problem: self-judgment. “People will eat a slice a cake, get mad at themselves and then say ‘To heck with the whole diet!’” Bricker said. Finally, we lack the skills to recognize and deal with triggers for the unwanted behavior, either not noticing our cravings or having unrealistic ideas about what to do with them.
How do you make a resolution in such a way that you’ll actually keep it? Here are Bricker’s best tips:
Know what matters to you. Think about what you really care about that will make this change worthwhile. Do you want to lose weight or quit smoking because you care about your own health? Want to show love for your family? Want to have more money to spend on the things that matter to you? “Dignify your resolutions with your values,” he said.
Make a specific and achievable plan. Think small, as in losing 5 – not 50 – pounds in one month. When you reach that goal, make another small goal. “Thinking big is daunting,” Bricker said. “Thinking small can work.”
Be nice to yourself. Give yourself a break and allow yourself to slip. Perfectionism is the problem, Bricker said. “Doing it wrong once in a while is the solution. Surprisingly, giving yourself permission to mess up can make it easier to try again,” he said. “And keep trying.”
Be aware and be willing. Be aware of your triggers for the undesired behavior, he advises. What thoughts, feelings and sensations do you have before you eat the cookie, smoke the cigarette, grab the drink or check your Facebook page? Once you’re aware, try to be willing: allow your sensations, thoughts and feelings to come and go without trying to act on them. “Rather than avoiding your triggers, try to just let them be there,” Bricker said. “If you can watch them for a few minutes, you may discover they are not so urgent. And sometimes they even go away.”
Editor's note: Bricker talks more about willingness, cravings, smoking cessation and his scientifically sound approach to behavioral change in this recent TEDx talk. Interested in kicking the cigarette habit? Get help – and join his Fred Hutch study – at www.webquit.org.
Diane Mapes is a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. She has written extensively about health issues for NBC News, TODAY, CNN, MSN, Seattle Magazine and other publications. A breast cancer survivor, she also writes the breast cancer blog doublewhammied.com. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.