The poor old evergreen tree is unceremoniously ripped from its pedestal and lugged to a temporary home propping up the side of the garage; the prancing decorations are jammed back into their plastic bags, consigned to oblivion for another eleven months; and the recycling bins groan under the weight of discarded boxes and the remnants of gaudy wrapping paper. Yes, Christmas has left the building.
Time for those legendary New Year Resolutions. But how likely are they to change our behaviour as we head towards 2011?
Not very, according to those who might be expected to know what they’re talking about. A 2009 study by psychologists at the University of Hertfordshire asked 700 people about their strategies for achieving New Year resolutions. Their goals ranged from losing weight or giving up smoking to gaining a qualification or starting a better relationship. Alas, just 22% had managed to stick to their resolutions. Of those who failed, many had followed the spurious advice of self-help gurus – which apparently almost guarantees disaster.
Of the 78% who lost their way, many had focussed on the downside of not achieving the goals; they had suppressed their cravings, fantasised about being successful, and adopted a role model or relied on willpower alone. According to the researchers,
“If you are trying to lose weight, it’s not enough to stick a picture of a model on your fridge or fantasise about being slimmer.”
The University of Hertfordshire researchers reviewed the efforts of those who did successfully change their ways, and found that people who kept their resolutions tended to have:
- broken their goal into smaller steps
- rewarded themselves when they achieved a small milestone
- told their friends about their goals
- focussed on the benefits of success; and
- kept a diary of their progress
The tradition of making New Year Resolutions reportedly dates back to the ancient Babylonians, who believed that what people did on the first day of the year affected what they did for the rest of the year. Today, of course, people believe that the New Year is a chance to start over again or change bad habits.
So are we doomed to failure, as so many seem to believe?
People who planned a series of smaller goals had an average success rate of 35%, while those who followed all five of the above strategies had a 50% chance of success, the study found.
If that sounds too much like hard work, consider the pronouncement by Mark Twain, who had a view on resolutions (as he did on most things):
“Now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual.”