Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

New Year's Resolutions: Do They Work?

January 1, 1996

A week or so has past since you've made your resolutions. How are you doing?

Success rates. According to research by psychologist John Norcross of the University of Scranton about 50 percent of the population made New Year's resolutions. After the first week, 77 percent were keeping their primary resolution. Fifty five percent of the participants m his study were successful after one month, 45 percent after three months and 40 percent after six months.

If you are reading this one week into the New Year, I can pat 77 percent of you on the back. Way to go!

Norcross’s findings are very encouraging considering the 40 percent success rate after six months. The changes were self-initiated and occurred without the help of any professional change agent. This finding is quite similar to the "survival curve" relapse pattern of people trying to stop addictive behaviors.

Common resolutions. Norcross did a 1994 Gallop New Year's Resolutions poll of 800 randomly sampled Pennsylvania residents. He found that 12 percent of the resolutions involved stopping smoking, 16 percent weight loss, 15 percent personal finances, 5 percent relationship improvement, and 5 percent exercise and physical activity. Those were the big categories of resolutions.

Success factors. How do the people help themselves succeed in resolution keeping? Norcross identifies two main factors: 1. Readiness to change, and 2. Self-confidence or a belief they can actually do it.

People who are successful in making changes start getting ready to change a few weeks before January 1. They gathered information, decided to change, built confidence, talked to friends and family, thought about healthy substitutes for their problem behavior and have their action plan ready to go.

Successful resolvers "psych" themselves up for a serious attempt at behavior change. They use January 1 as their kickoff date because they get more social support - others changing with them. People who have success with their New Year's resolutions have already put much thought and energy into their resolution before January 1.

Flippant resolutions and subsequent unsuccessful experiences lower a person's self-confidence and self- esteem. Not surprisingly, people who succeeded with past resolutions are better able to succeed with their current resolution than those who had previous failure experiences.

After January 1, successful resolvers also reward themselves for small successes. They take small steps toward changing and organize their environment to be supportive of the changes they are making. They marshall their will-power and deal with lapses without turning them into relapses.

The measure of self-rated desire to change and the amount of social support received didn't vary between successful and unsuccessful resolvers. Social support seems to matter more for long term success than for short term success of less than six months.

Relying too much on will power alone was a cause of failure. Unsuccessful resolvers used passive coping strategies such as self-blame and wishful thinking.

Lapse or relapse? The "saint or sinner" effect comes into play. Most resolvers - both successful and unsuccessful - experienced at least one slip or lapse. The successful resolver uses the slip of behavior to analyze the failure, learn from it and to make a necessary correction in their action plan. A slip actually strengthened their resolve.

This is in contrast to the person who reacts to lapses by "falling off the wagon." The slip is demoralizing and leads to giving up or abandoning their attempt to change.

The good news. Sixty percent of those who reported failing at keeping their original resolution were committed to altering the same behavior two years later. This offers hope for me and the other 60 percent who failed at last year's resolution. An ending can be a beginning - this time with a little better plan and a lot less noise.

Quick advice to file away for next year.

1. A serious resolve is a step in the fight direction.

2. Don't make frivolous resolutions. Take them seriously or don't make them at all.

3. If you wait until January 1, it is too late. Think ahead about the changes you want to make.

4. Don't try to do it all at once. Keep your goals realistic. Be willing to accept the fact that change comes in small steps.

5. A slip doesn't need to be a fall. A resolution is a marathon, not a hundred-yard dash.