FRIDAY April 6, 2012 -- Three months into 2012, chances are good that those grand plans for self-improvement hatched at the start of the new year have become more of a dead weight.
Many people vow to eat less and exercise more; stop smoking, drinking or spending too much; and better organize our wayward lives.
Research in the Journal of Clinical Psychology has found that only 64 percent of New Year's resolutions are maintained after one month and, six months later, less than half still stand.
Why the swift breakdown?
"People make resolutions that are not necessarily well-coordinated to either their ability or to reality," said Peter Herman, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto. "We know that when people make resolutions in the first place, merely making the resolution energizes them. That emotional positivity is really hard to sustain when you get in the hard slog. … It tends to decline and shift into negativity."
One of the top problems with most resolutions, Herman said, is that they're too broad, not firmly defining what it is you're seeking to accomplish. "If you resolve to lose weight, what does that even mean? How much weight?" he asked.
"Clearly, concrete resolutions would be better," agreed Daniel Akst, a columnist for Newsday, a Long Island, N.Y., newspaper, and author of We Have Met the Enemy: Self-Control in an Age of Excess. "Don't resolve to be a great novelist, resolve to finish a novel."
All isn't lost, however, if you find yourself backsliding on your pledges about a quarter of the way through 2012. To get back on track, Herman and Akst said, people should:
Resolutions are much easier to follow when the steps to achieve them are almost brainless. That's why Akst is a big fan, for example, of diets that cut out entire food groups, such as the Atkins diet (which eliminates carbs) or veganism.
"If you're ever going to succeed at something, I think you need a pretty detailed plan to offer fairly low-level instructions to yourself," Herman said. "Even saying that you're going to go to the gym twice a week is vague. … You want to say, 'I'm going to use the elliptical machine for X number of minutes,' and you probably have to talk to a trainer about what is a sensible plan for you."
Make it public
Up the ante by telling loved ones, friends, co-workers and even your Facebook friends what you plan to accomplish, Akst recommended. Faced with embarrassment if you fail, this kind of kick in the pants is a well-known psychological tool, he said.
"Tell people to chide you when you're doing the wrong thing -- it can help a lot," Akst noted. "Just as Odysseus got men to help tie him to the mast so he wouldn't succumb to the Sirens' song, you can do that."
Set 'proximal' goals
So-called proximal goals are more realistic simply because they set the bar lower -- like aiming for a half-pound of weight loss a week instead of two pounds. But success is also more frequent and tangible.
"If my resolution is to write a novel," Akst said, "a better resolution would be that I'm going to write two pages a day, five days a week. That way, each day you get to succeed, and success builds success."
Herman also pointed out that "we live in a culture not noted for training people to persist in the face of tremendous odds. We want things to come fairly easy for us. Trying to do something less ambitious is a rational thing to do, but people are not very good at saying, 'I bit off more than I can chew.'"
Plan for failure
Many resolutions get derailed because of small, potentially temporary setbacks that compel us to chuck our big plans altogether. Going off a diet at a party, for example, doesn't mean you can't get right back on the wagon the next day, with little damage done.
"If you decide to stop smoking but have one cigarette for some reason, … does that cigarette represent a failure of your entire resolution or is it simply a blip you can get past?" Herman said. "It's not very difficult to anticipate that sort of thing, but some people don't think that far ahead."
The U.S. General Services Administration offers a list of resources to help achieve common goals.
Posted: April 2012
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