The number of Americans planning to reinvent themselves on January 1 is on the wane: A CBS poll found that only 32 percent of Americans are making New Year’s resolutions this year, down from 42 percent two years ago and over half in 1985. What separates the ones who will actually change their behavior from the ones who won’t quite remember their resolution by the end of January?
In 1985, a group of psychologists, led by John Norcross of the University of Scranton, set out to study New Year’s resolutions as a window into self-motivated change. In December of that year, Norcross and his team recruited 200 American adults who planned to make New Year’s resolutions and checked in with them periodically over the course of two years. Each subject made an average of 1.8 resolutions, though Norcross focused on each person’s “primary” resolution; the most common ones were to lose weight (38 percent), stop smoking (30 percent), improve a relationship (5 percent), drink less (2 percent) and save more money (2 percent). One week into the new year, 77 percent of the participants reported that they were on track, but the numbers decline steadily thereafter: After a month, 55 percent said that they had kept their resolution, 40 percent after six months and only 19 percent after two years.
The point of the study wasn’t just to discourage people who are determined to change—Norcross’ research provides clues into what makes us succeed or fail.
Don’t tell everyone
Two prospective variables significantly discriminated between the unsuccessful and successful resolvers…. First, prior to changing, successful resolvers rated themselves as more prepared to change. Second, successful resolvers expressed higher levels of confidence to change than their nonsuccessful counterparts.
Successful resolvers also used more “reinforcement strategies”—rewarding themselves for reaching intermediary goals. Factors that didn’t matter? Behavioral skills, self-reported desire to change, and, surprisingly, social support—another reason not to share your resolution on Facebook.
Don’t criticize yourself
"Once into January, participants reported their use of 14 coping strategies at that time and during the past week. Four coping strategies differentiated successful and nonsuccessful resolvers at both one week and one month. The use of self-liberation (e.g., willpower) and stimulus control (e.g., kept things around to remind you not to give in to the problem) strategies was related to positive outcome. Conversely, self-blame (e.g., criticize, lecture, or blame myself) and wishful thinking (e.g., wish the problem would go away) were inversely related to outcome; nonsuccessful resolvers reported employing significantly more of these processes."
You will slip up
"The majority of resolvers, both successful and unsuccessful, experienced at least one slip or lapse. Resolvers who maintained their change reported an average of 14 slips over the 2-year span. The precipitants of the initial slip … were feeling a lack of personal control (77 percent), excessive stress (68 percent), negative emotions (67 percent), social pressure (56 percent), interpersonal conflict (51 percent) and positive emotion (47 percent)."
It might backfire
"New Year’s resolutions should not be entered into lightly or thoughtlessly. Common sense, clinical experience, and these findings point to the deleterious impact of failure experiences on self-esteem. Even flippant resolutions spontaneously offered as New Year’s Eve diversions may have negative effects on the person’s confidence."