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Making Resolutions That Stick

Dec 28, 2012
Originally published on December 28, 2012 1:03 pm



This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. Up next this hour, the psychology of New Year's resolutions. Oh yeah, the making, the breaking, the keeping of New Year's resolutions. According to my next guest, between 40 to 50 percent of us participate in that annual holiday ritual, the making of New Year's resolutions. And each year we resolve what? Do you quit smoking, join a gym, live on a budget, lose weight, drink less? Make up your own, insert it right there. And believe it or not - believe it or not - a large percentage of people who make resolutions actually do stick to them.

So why do these folks have the right stuff, while the rest of us can't keep that promise? My next guest is a clinical psychologist who has studied the successful and the not-so-successful resolution makers, and he has some suggestions for those of you vowing to make a change coming January 1st. One of those suggestions has to do with having someone phoning you a few times and reminding you of your resolution. We'll hear more about it from Dr. John Norcross, he's a clinical psychologist and a distinguished professor of psychology at the University of Scranton. Thanks for talking with us today.

DR. JOHN NORCROSS: You're welcome, Ira. Happy holidays.

FLATOW: Happy holidays. Well, why do we normally take this time of the year to make resolutions?

NORCROSS: It begins with history. Worshippers in ancient Roman times would offer resolutions of good conduct to the god Janus, the two-faced deity looking backwards and forwards. And since that time, it's become a socially sanctioned time where the plate is clean and everyone has a new opportunity.

FLATOW: And I mentioned a few of the resolutions we hear about, what other kinds of popular resolutions are there?

NORCROSS: Well, they are. The popular ones that you've identified: the losing weight, starting exercise, stop smoking. Being nicer to someone in the family also makes the top five. And when the economy begins to slide, you start seeing a rise in financial resolutions - to budget, save money and so forth.

FLATOW: Are there some behaviors - some resolutions that are harder to keep and to change than others?

NORCROSS: No, it's not so much the resolution as it is how attainable or realistic the goal is. You know, someone says I'm going to lose 50 pounds and keep it off this year versus I think I'll struggle to keep 10 off - that's a little more realistic. So, it has more to do with the realism of the resolution than exactly what the behavior is.

FLATOW: Let's talk about some of the things you can do to be more successful in your resolutions. How can you be more successful?

NORCROSS: Well, it all begins, Ira, before January 1st, by making realistic, attainable goals. We say if you can't measure it, it's not a very good resolution because vague goals beget vague resolutions. From there, one needs to establish genuine confidence that one can keep the resolution, despite the occasional slips. We call this self-efficacy. That's not general self-confidence, rather it's specific conviction that you can change a behavior.

FLATOW: So, you have to not be unrealistic to begin with - with what you can - you know, instead of saying I'm going to lose 50 pounds, I'll lose 10 pounds.

NORCROSS: Right. Or I'll go to the gym three times a week instead of saying seven times a week.

FLATOW: Yeah. So it goes to your setting yourself up for failure right from the beginning?

NORCROSS: Right. Grandiose goals beget resignation and early failure.

FLATOW: I was surprised in reading your paper about actually how many people are successful in...

NORCROSS: Oh, yes. We say the glass is proverbial, half-empty or half-full, here.


NORCROSS: In two of our longitudinal studies, 40 to 46 percent of New Year's resolvers will be successful at six months. So, the half empty is, it's true, most people fail. But 40 to 46 percent is pretty impressive. Particularly when you compare it to the people who don't try and therefore have, in our research, 0 to 4 percent chance.

FLATOW: Do people start fast and then just peter out?

NORCROSS: That's exactly right. When you look at what we call the survival curves, about 75 percent of resolvers will be successful for one week, and then that just gradually drops down to about the 40 to 46 percent at six months.

FLATOW: Interesting note from your papers: You report that the success rate of resolutions is 10 times higher than the success rate of adults desiring to change behavior but not making a resolution to do it.

NORCROSS: That was our last study, that's exactly right. You know, I was tired of people saying resolutions never succeed, we shouldn't even try them. And I said, well, wait a minute, these are life-sustaining behaviors. What's the alternative? So, the alternative was to track people starting before January 1st with the same behavioral goals, with the same motivation to stop or to take the resolutions but who just weren't going to do anything then. And that's - and only 4 percent of them were successful at six months. So you go from 4 percent, all the way up to 44, 46 percent by taking a New Year's resolution seriously and trying to do something about it.

FLATOW: So it almost seems like the people who make the resolution are more serious about completing it than the people who just say I'll do it.

NORCROSS: That's right. They move from thinking about it to doing it. What we call from the contemplation stage to the action stage.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And you also report that a few simple things can move people from the contemplation to the actual state. And one of those you report is making a phone call to a friend who's got the resolution. You say as few as three phone calls will get them going.

NORCROSS: The buddy system works.

FLATOW: It does?

NORCROSS: And the buddies can be co-workers, family members, friends, fellow resolvers. They don't even have to share the same resolution, Ira. It just has to be someone on your side. And for a couple weeks, people can persevere through even the more difficult environments lacking social support. But once you get into January, the willpower begins to slip and that's when we start counting on other people...


NORCROSS: ...to remind us, to encourage us and to keep us back on track.

FLATOW: Karen(ph) in Atlantic City. Hi, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

KAREN #1: How are you doing?

FLATOW: Fine. Happy New Year to you.

KAREN #1: Thank you. I'm actually in Laramie, Wyoming. And I kind of had an unusual plan this year. My husband is - excuse me - 50 and I'm 55. He's about 6 foot 2, 260. I'm about 5 foot 2, 160. So, we go through this every year. And this year, instead of buying him Christmas gifts, I set up appointments with a nutritionist, a personal trainer, and a phone-support system, some friends of ours.


KAREN #1: So we can kind of get a grip on it, you know, at our age. We're those people that exercise a lot, do all kinds of things, we just eat too much.

FLATOW: So you're going way past just making a resolution. You're already into the activation stage of this.

KAREN #1: Correct. Actually, I gave him a very loving letter yesterday about how I hope this will work for us because I want to live a long time. Women in my family tend to live to 90.

FLATOW: That's nice. I hope he has returned all this goodness to you.


KAREN #1: He has. He's actually an excellent shopper.


FLATOW: That comes in handy this time of the year.

KAREN #1: It does, and he likes expensive stores, so you know, whatever. I'll take it.

FLATOW: All right, thanks for calling.

KAREN #1: Very welcome.

FLATOW: Dr. Norcross, these people have gone already past the resolution stage.

NORCROSS: Well, they're ringing in the New Year exactly the right way. They tried it on their own and perhaps experienced, like most people, partial success. But now, they're taking it up a step or two and saying, let's get some professionals involved. And when you make the commitment of time and money, such as appointments with a nutritionist and a personal trainer, people get more serious. In fact, I just learned today that my own brother has hired a personal trainer for my mother. That helps us all stay on track.

FLATOW: That's great. Let's go to Nina(ph) in Doylestown, P.A. Hi, Nina.

NINA: Yes, hi, Ira. I want to thank you for keeping me sane while I was raising three children, by the way.


FLATOW: You're welcome.

NINA: I find there's big difference between motivation and inspiration. And that is - seems to be what my downfall is when I make a goal for myself. Could you discuss that?

FLATOW: Motivation?

NORCROSS: Versus inspiration.

NINA: And inspiration.

FLATOW: And inspiration.

NORCROSS: That's a great question. And that makes all the difference. Inspiration is short-lived. It's typically emulating other people and it'll push us for a week or two. But inspiration begins to extinguish quite quickly. And as Henry Ford once said, after that, it's 90 percent hard work. Inspiration may get us started, but it never keeps us going and that's where motivation works.

And motivation doesn't come in a bottle. Motivation is, scientifically speaking, a series of small behaviors. And here's some ways to enhance the motivation: Track your progress by recording or charting the behavior in question. Reward your successes, reinforce yourself for each step with a healthy treat or a compliment, perhaps even create a reward contract with a loved one. And you also need to arrange your environment to help, rather than hinder you, limit exposure to any high-risk situations, create reminders. So we don't need to think of motivation as something we have. Motivations are specific behaviors we build into our day.

FLATOW: What if you don't start your resolution on January 1st? Should you still make a resolution, even if you're not prepared to start on January 1st?

NORCROSS: We say take resolutions seriously or don't take them at all. You can start a resolution on February 1st, March 1st, your birthday, the beginning of summer. People who push themselves prematurely into a resolution without having a specific action plan are quite likely to fail. So, pick a day when you're ready. Set the quit date or the start date for the resolution, make sure you're ready and then take it. The change of the calendar, Ira, may not be the right time for everybody.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. So you do one thing at a time, and, you know, don't say, I'm going to diet and quit smoking at the same time because you'll never get them both done.

NORCROSS: Well, there's some interesting research on that. And that is, it depends how much time and commitment you have. If the two resolutions are related, then it may make sense to do it together. For example, losing weight and increasing exercise, most people see those things as going together. But if there are two very different resolutions, you may just be overwhelmed with the amount of time and energy that they call for. So, we ask people never more than two. If they're related, two is great. Otherwise, just do one at a time.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Jodie(ph) in Baton Rouge. Hi, Jodie.


FLATOW: Hi there.

JODIE: Our family was a bit derailed with some unexpected twins. And so I had been talking to my 13-year-old and my 9-year-old about all of us making family resolutions this year, some things that we would like to do different now that the babies are almost two. Do you have any suggestions on how to make it work for some family-type goals and resolutions?

NORCROSS: Well, we sure do. And as a parent, I think we can all appreciate how we're derailed with the pressures and responsibilities of childhood. The family resolutions is a fascinating idea and one that can work quite well, presuming you could find a resolution the entire family is behind and not just one or two. Far too often, we see parents who would love a resolution, but the kids really aren't into it. But if you can find one the whole group agrees with, then you have the built-in social support.

At that point, we would say, please publicly declare your resolution as a family. Such a public commitment is generally more successful than private decisions. Have the whole family create a reward contract. When we do this, we'll all reward each other this way, so not only for individual behavior but for the entire family behavior. It's a lot easier taking that big, old refrigerator out to the curb on trash day than to have one person struggling with it. Families can do it all together much more effectively than one alone.

FLATOW: Great idea. How's that?

JODIE: That was great. Great suggestion.

FLATOW: Thanks for calling.

JODIE: Thank you so much.

FLATOW: Happy New Year, Jodie. Thanks for calling. We are talking with John Norcross about New Year's resolutions. Anything else - anything surprising also that you found in your research, Dr. Norcross?

NORCROSS: Yeah. And that's about the slips, Ira. In one of our - excuse me - one of our most recent studies, we found that people really slipped quite a lot. That is, most successful resolvers slipped in January. But they discovered that a slip, a momentary lapse in a resolution, need not be a fall. They picked themselves up and they recommitted themselves to the resolution after a slip. For example, 71 percent of our successful resolvers said their first slip had actually strengthened their efforts.

But they know a slip didn't need to become a fall or, as we say it in the scientific research, a lapse didn't need to become a relapse. And the successful resolvers slipped just as much in early January as the unsuccessful resolvers. So this is really encouraging news to everybody. Early slips may be a sign that you just need to refine your action plan, get back up and do something.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let's see if we can get one more call from Karen(ph) in Atlantic City. Hi, Karen.

KAREN #2: Yes, hi. I made a New Year's resolution in 1978 to start running and I'm still going.

FLATOW: Good for you.

KAREN #2: So, I'm wondering at what point a resolution turns into obsession, especially when your knees are falling apart.


NORCROSS: Well, first off, congratulations, Karen. That's an impressive resolution. And indeed, that's how the successful resolutions proceed. They're no longer something that you have to be all that mindful of. You've just totally integrated it into your life's scheme, as it were. It's no longer a problematic behavior. It just becomes who you are, a new healthy daily habit. You're right though, even the best behaviors can be taken too far. And whether that's your knees or time, sometimes we all need to learn a resolution to let go just a little bit of even the more positive elements in our life.

FLATOW: Is it - why is it so hard for you to stop, Karen?

KAREN #2: I do - fresh air. It's become now, I think, actually - I'm on the Boardwalk, which is beautiful. I've gotten slower, a lot slower, not that I ever was that fast. The air, really, I'm just so used to it. Maybe I could just walk fast.

NORCROSS: Well, it's the bounty of benefits that exercises generate for all of us: the time alone, the exercise, the scenery. Congratulations on doing it. But if your knees are hurting, everyone should remember that healthful walking is almost as beneficial as the running.

FLATOW: Karen, I have a suggestion for you.

KAREN #2: Yes?

FLATOW: Make this year's new resolution to slow down, to walk instead of run, and see if you can keep that resolution.

KAREN #2: Well, thank you. That's one of those resolutions, I think, that gets made for you, you know.


FLATOW: Well, good luck and thanks for calling and...

KAREN #2: Thank you very much.

FLATOW: ...see you on the Boardwalk.

KAREN #2: Happy New Year.

FLATOW: You, too. Any last words here, Dr. Norcross?

NORCROSS: Well, it would be: let's think of resolutions as marathons, not a hundred-yard dash. We need to prepare for the long haul, the changed lifestyle, just as Karen discussed. And we should keep in mind that even if you're not successful this year, our research shows that virtually everyone who doesn't succeed this year will try again next year. This is a lifelong quest for improved behavior.

FLATOW: Thank you very much for those tips, Dr. Norcross, and a happy New Year to you.

NORCROSS: Thank you.

FLATOW: John Norcross is a clinical psychologist and distinguished professor of psychology at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.