Promises, promises: research reveals secrets of successful New Year's resolutions

January 6, 2011

If you’ve made one or more resolutions for the New Year, good luck. According to the papers listed above, you will need it. The most common resolutions include losing weight, improving diet, quitting smoking, reducing alcohol consumption, taking exercise, eliminating debt and seeking better employment. While those who make resolutions are 10 times more likely to change behaviour than those who do not make explicit resolutions, after six months only four in 10 resolvers were successful. After a year, that number sinks to one or two in 10.

Researchers have found that determination and willpower are beneficial (psychologist Albert Bandura’s concept of self-efficacy); also, having a specific plan on how to achieve one’s goal aids success substantially. It all sounds like common sense. What may be less expected are the findings that suggest that failure in the course of trying to keep a resolution, which is common, should be handled with understanding. Those who avoid undue guilt and a complete relapse of a habit have a better chance of permanently changing behaviour. A single cigarette should not be seen as an inability to stop smoking. Such thinking leads to a downward spiral.

Moreover, willpower has its limits. Other helpful strategies include imagining the benefits of the change, telling friends about the resolution in order to receive support, and keeping a log to help understand what works and what doesn’t, especially in terms of particular environments or social situations.

One New Year’s resolution researcher helpfully quotes Victor Frankl, the late psychiatrist and neurologist, who observed: “Between stimulus and response, there’s a space, and in that space is our power to choose our response, and in our response lies our growth and freedom.”

Promises, promises: research reveals secrets of successful New Year's resolutions
Data provided by Thomson Reuters from its Web of Science database
%3Cb%3EPaper%3C/b%3E %3Cbr /%3EAuthor(s), journal
%3Cb%3EEffects of resolving to change one’s own behavior: expectations vs experience%3C/b%3E %3Cbr /%3EK. Trottier, J. Polivy and C. P. Herman %3Cbr /%3E%3Ci%3EBehavior Therapy%3C/i%3E, 40 (2): 164-70, June 2009
%3Cb%3ENew Year quit-smoking resolutions%3C/b%3E %3Cbr /%3ER. A. Walsh and C. L. Paul Australian and New Zealand %3Cbr /%3E%3Ci%3EJournal of Public Health%3C/i%3E, 26 (2): 181, April 2002
%3Cb%3EAuld lang syne: success predictors, change processes, and self-reported outcomes of New Year’s resolvers and non-resolvers%3C/b%3E %3Cbr /%3EJ. C. Norcross, M. S. Mrykalo and M. D. Blagys %3Cbr /%3E%3Ci%3EJournal of Clinical Psychology%3C/i%3E, 58 (4): 397-405, April 2002
%3Cb%3ECigarette advertising to counter New Year’s resolution%3C/b%3E %3Cbr /%3EM. D. Basil, D. Z. Basil and C. Schooler %3Cbr /%3E%3Ci%3EJournal of Health Communication%3C/i%3E, 5 (2): 161-74, April/June 2000
%3Cb%3ELosing weight: an ill-fated New Year’s resolution%3C/b%3E %3Cbr /%3EJ. P. Kassirer and M. Angell %3Cbr /%3E%3Ci%3ENew England Journal of Medicine%3C/i%3E, 338 (1): 52-54, 1 January 1998
%3Cb%3ESelf-discrepancy, self-determination, self-efficacy and New Year’s resolutions%3C/b%3E %3Cbr /%3EA. Greenstein and R. Koestner %3Cbr /%3E%3Ci%3EInternational Journal of Psychology%3C/i%3E, 31 (3-4): 384.70, 1996
%3Cb%3ERinging in the New Year: the change processes and reported outcomes of resolutions%3C/b%3E %3Cbr /%3EJ. C. Norcross, A. C. Ratzin and D. Payne %3Cbr /%3E%3Ci%3EAddictive Behaviors%3C/i%3E, 14 (2): 205-12, 1989
%3Cb%3ESelf-initiated attempts to change behavior: a study of New Year’s resolutions%3C/b%3E %3Cbr /%3EG. A. Marlatt and B. E. Kaplan %3Cbr /%3E%3Ci%3EPsychological Reports%3C/i%3E, 30 (1): 123-31, 1972
%3Cb%3ENew Year’s resolutions in England and the United States: implications for national character%3C/b%3E %3Cbr /%3EM. L. Farber, %3Ci%3EPsychological Reports%3C/i%3E, 3 (4): 521-24, 1957
%3Cb%3EThe New Year’s resolution and ascetic Protestantism%3C/b%3E %3Cbr /%3EI. Thorner %3Cbr /%3E%3Ci%3ESocial Forces%3C/i%3E, 30 (1): 102-07, October 1951

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