Keeping New Year’s Resolutions

The New Year is here. It is time for the annual ritual of resolving to improve ourselves. The joke of course is that New Year’s resolutions rarely last beyond January. At our local YMCA one can observe the increase in the number of people swimming at 6 a.m. before going to work. By mid-February, however, the number of people at the early morning swim has returned to the December levels. Too often, our collective hopes of change in the New Year never come to fruition. That said, some fundamental psychology can increase our odds of personal improvement in 2008.

Some people believe that New Year’s resolutions are silly. Yet for those who strive for self-improvement, making the resolution is vital. Consciously setting goals makes it more likely the goals will be achieved. Those who do not set goals are not likely to change. The old saying is true: If you do not plan, you plan to fail.

If making resolutions is helpful, why do so many people fail to keep them? We may not know how to set achievable goals. For example, consider the common resolution to lose 10 pounds. This resolution is indeed unlikely to be kept. It is a goal without a plan.

Achievable goals are behavioral. Rather than setting a goal of weight loss, we should resolve to engage in specific behaviors that are likely to result in weight loss. Making goals behavioral means having clear objectives. Furthermore, we have control over our behavior. We cannot will ourselves to lose weight. We can will ourselves to engage in healthful behavior.

The more specific the resolution the better. Specificity not only provides a clear plan, it also means that we know when we are failing to fulfill our plan. If we resolve to engage in vigorous exercise for 30 minutes on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, it is obvious at the end of the day if we have met the goal.

Keeping track of behavioral progress improves motivation and increases the chances of success. A simple chart with dates noting whether the behavior was completed is all it takes. Note that perfection is unlikely. Meeting exercise goals three out of four weeks should be viewed as success rather than failure. Occasionally missing the mark does not mean our regimen of personal improvement is doomed to fail. As humans we will occasionally fall short of our ideal. As long as we return to our regimen our improvement continues.

Successful resolutions are reasonably attainable. It is easy to resolve that we will save money by never going out to eat. It would be fun to add up all of the money that will be saved with such a plan. This resolution does not take into account that there will be days when exhaustion makes dining out too compelling to resist. Similarly, a resolution to stop eating all junk food is not a likely path to success. Most of us will not go from regularly enjoying junk food to being abstainers overnight, if ever. A more reasonable resolution would to be to limit one’s junk food to particular days or to reduce the portion sizes.

Too often resolutions are difficult or impossible to achieve, leading to the multitude who believe that New Year’s resolutions are made to be broken. Reasonably attainable resolutions start with small goals. Success breeds confidence and a greater likelihood of persistence in the face of adversity. Some might argue that the small changes are insignificant. Yet some change is more significant than no change. Only following success with these small changes are we ready to begin making larger changes.

In short, the principles of making specific behavioral goals that are reasonably attainable and the importance of keeping track of progress apply all the time, not only in January. The transition to a new year is a wonderful time for self-reflection and resolving to improve ourselves. Whatever the time of year, these fundamental principles from psychology can be used to facilitate success with self-improvement. May you have a blessed new year with success in making specific, small behavioral changes.