New Year's Resolutions That Survive the Test of Time

Ring in a healthier new you; how to make realistic goals that you can reach.

December 22, 2009, 6:03 PM

Dec. 28, 2009— -- With 2010 days away, the time for bizarre resolutions and schemes for self-improvement is here.

But even the most well-intended resolutions tend to fall to pieces soon after the ball drops.

Niall O'Dowd of New York City resolved to lose 30 pounds one year but fell off the exercise bike the first day in and fractured his leg. "No more weight loss," O'Dowd told "Try gaining another 15 [pounds]."

About 40 percent to 45 percent of Americans make resolutions each New Year's, says John Norcross, distinguished professor of clinical psychology at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania.

But, according to his research, less than half of the pledges pan out.

So what is it about the first of January that makes us strive to reinvent ourselves, year after year?

The tradition began with ancient Romans, says Norcross, who has studied behavioral change at New Year's for 30 years. They would "make promises of good conduct to Janus, the two-faced deity who looked both backward and forward" and presided over beginnings and endings.

Today, resolutions still include promises of good behavior, he notes, with pledges to eat healthier, exercise more and spend less money topping the charts again and again.

Whether the yearly resolutions actually result in a better you is a question for experts on behavioral change, motivation and relationship growth.

Why Wait for Auld Lang Syne?

"It's always a good time to start" changing for the better, says Gretchen Rubin, blogger and author of "The Happiness Project," pointing out that people enjoy the enhanced feeling of a fresh start that comes with starting a new year.

Norcross says, "Virtually all civilizations and religions have opportunities to begin anew, this happens to be [America's]. Here's a secular chance for an entire do-over."

The built-in social support of the practice is also important, he notes, considering people around you are making similar resolutions.

How to Make It Stick

But waiting until you're "clinking champagne glasses" to come up with a resolution is liable to get you nowhere, Norcross says.

When done on a lark and not in the name of real self-improvement, the holiday can become nothing more than "lip service," Rubin says.

Blogger Rubin says, "People use a resolution to pretend like they are making a change when they're actually using it to evade making change."

As for the key ingredients to a resolution that will last after the post-New Year's hangover, Norcross studied people who, come December, had decided to make a change in their lives and tracked the success -- or failure -- of their resolutions for six months.

He found that those who "made a public commitment instead of a private decision to change" before New Year's and were "genuinely confident that they could keep their resolution despite a few [inevitable] slips" were much more likely to succeed in the long run.

Also, committing to and planning for a resolution ahead of time was essential. It made resolvers better prepared to put things into action.

Early in the year, building in a healthy substitute for the bad behavior and arranging the environment to remove temptation were the key strategies of successful resolvers, Norcross found.

The right attitude was also important: Those who rewarded their successes and avoided self-blame for slipups had resolutions with more staying power.

"Successful people had the same number of slips early in January as people who would ultimately be unsuccessful, but it was how one dealt with those slips" that mattered, he says.

But even though more than half of serious resolutions fail before the spring, there's still value in making a resolution, Norcross says.

Only 40 percent of resolvers in Norcross' study succeeded. But those who had a behavior they wanted to change and didn't make a New Year's resolution succeeded only 4 percent of the time, he points out.

Why Resolutions Are So Hard to Keep

Considering the difficulty associated with keeping resolutions, it should come as little surprise that these hopeful promises are a subject of curiosity for many researchers.

What they have found is this: The resolutions we make are tied to a region of our brains known as the prefrontal cortex. And because this high-traffic area handles other important functions -- including emotion and complex thought -- our resolutions tend to fall by the wayside if we are distracted by other matters, according to researchers.

Take, for example, the research of Baba Shiv at Stanford University, who in 1999 conducted a novel experiment in which two groups of students were asked to remember either a two-digit number or a seven-digit number. During this task, the students were presented with a choice -- either have chocolate cake as a snack, or a bowl of fruit. Those who were charged with remembering the longer number were far more likely to choose the more decadent dessert.

In other words, when it comes to the high demands of daily thinking, resolutions all too often take a backseat.

How you phrase the resolution plays a vital role in your ability to carry it out, blogger Rubin says.

"People need to be very, very concrete ... something like, 'Enjoy the moment' or 'Be optimistic,' how do you do that? People don't know how to keep that."

Rubin also points out that it's important to be sensitive to the positive or negative spin your resolution has.

"Some people do not like to be told no. They don't like limits ... and they will inevitably resist that type of change," he says. "If you're like that, you need to think about it in a way that feels like a yes to you: Eat more salad instead of no more dessert, for example."

Also, make the resolution small enough to handle, Rubin says, because "a lot of times people make the mistake of setting a really ambitious goal because they are excited about the idea of change. But it's easy to become overwhelmed and be worse off than when you started.

"People overestimate what they can do immediately and underestimate what they can do in the long run," he says, so don't expect big change to happen overnight or even in the first month or two.

Norcross agrees. "It's a marathon, not a 100-yard dash," he says. "This is not just January, this is for life."

Not Just a Better Me, a Better Us

But with the focus on self-improvement, people may overlook how much improved relationships can add to their health and happiness, says Michelle Weiner-Davis, divorce counselor, author and founder of, an online resource for people with marriage difficulties.

"When close to one out of every two marriages ends in divorce, we should stop worshiping the personal god or goddess and spend more attention on our relationships," she says.

"Research shows that people in healthy relationships are healthier [and] live longer," so fixing your marriage may be another route to your other, personal goals, she points out.

Weiner-Davis uses tactics similar to those of Norcross and Rubin to address interpersonal growth: She advises couples to set relationships goals, "break goals down into doable chunks" and "make a game plan" for how you make it happen.

She emphasizes that for relationships, goals must be phrased positively, otherwise "you'll start noticing the negative behavior and focus on the problem, not the solution."

She says if a husband complains that his wife is too critical, for example, the goal should be for her to make more appreciative comments of the things he does for her instead of her resolving "not to nag," a relationship resolution that will only make the husband focus on the number of criticisms he receives.

"Many people think they've fallen out of love but they've fallen short of relationships skills," Weiner-Davis says, adding that focusing on issues such as improved communication, shared activities or passion as goals for the New Year will do wonders for your relationship and, consequently, your personal happiness.

Whether a personal declaration to quit smoking or a reaffirmation of the vows you made on your wedding day, Norcross says, the ever-present desire and will to make a change for the better is heartening.

"It's the American dream to become better," he says, and such a desire "embodies the spirit of the New Year's resolution."