New Year’s Resolutions: it is possible to stick to them

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Pondering my own New Year’s resolutions this year led me to looking up what research has been done on this phenomenon. A very well-written paper from 1989 by Norcross & Vangerelli describes the origins of the New Year’s resolution. Apparently resolutions hail from Roman times, when people promised the two-headed God Janus that they would behave better. Janus looks both forwards and backwards and is whom the month of January is named after.

Common New Year’s resolutions include weight loss, giving up smoking, or kicking alcohol, with ‘dry January’ becoming increasingly popular. Norcross & Vangerelli followed the efforts of 200 Americans who pledged to change something about their lives. They followed them up over a two year period, after these people volunteered in response to a regional TV broadcast. Researchers called the participants up at one week, two weeks, three weeks, a month, three months, six months and two years later. Participants were asked about how they were doing with their resolution and also about the coping strategies they were using to make changes.

Over 75% of participants had kept their resolution at the one week follow up, but by two years this had reduced to 19%. Not bad, but still, the authors wanted to understand what had helped this 1 in 5 keep their resolutions. People who were better at sticking to their resolutions were more likely to keep reminders around themselves of the resolution they were trying to stick to. Giving oneself rewards for making changes was also associated with sticking to resolutions. In contrast, wishful thinking (wishing the problem would just go away by itself) and self-blame (getting at oneself for a ‘slip up’) were associated with not sticking to the resolution.

When asked what was most or least helpful, four strategies were most often identified as being good: exercise, gradually reducing an unwanted behaviour in order to give it up, rewards for succeeding, and having reminders of the goal. Least helpful were: lack of willpower, lack of seriousness about the resolution and being in environments which conflicted with the resolution (e.g. trying to give up smoking but spending time with other smokers). Lots of people reported times when they accidentally went back to doing whatever it was they were trying to give up, but 70% reported that this strengthened their resolve, which is encouraging to remember if you fall off the resolution wagon.

In fact, motivational interviewing, a therapeutic technique used in helping people to give up substance abuse, recognises that ‘falling off the wagon’ and having continued ambivalence about making a change in our behaviour is entirely normal: something to be worked with, not something to beat ourselves up about.

So, top five tips to help you to change something for 2014:
1. Make sure you are serious about wanting to make the change. To do this, you could try writing out some pros and cons of making the change, long-term and short-term. Follow this up by writing out the pros and cons, long-term and short-term, of staying with things how they are. Do the pros outweigh the cons? Or do the long term benefits of making a change outweigh the short-term rewards of the behaviour you want to get rid of? You might also try to imagine yourself in six months time having stuck to your resolution, and in one year, what would be different?
2. Reward yourself when you stick to your resolution
3. Don’t get at yourself if you lapse, just get back to it
4. Surround yourself with reminders of your resolution
5. Try not to be in environments which make it hard to stick to your resolution

Good luck! And let psychology magpie know if these things work for you!

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