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.