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Winifred Lender: To Resolve or Not to Resolve — Are New Year’s Resolutions a Good Thing?

After the champagne toasts are made, the ball drops in New York City's Times Square, the confetti falls and the revelry ends, a new year will be here. With a new year comes the idea of a fresh start and the option of making resolutions.

The tradition of making resolutions for the new year dates back to the ancient Babylonians, who made simple promises to others and to the gods for the coming year. Americans have historically liked the tradition of setting resolutions for the new year, and today more Americans set resolutions than they did in the 1940s.

Up to 45 percent of all Americans make new year's resolutions annually. The most popular resolutions for 2014, according to researchers at the University of Scranton, relate to self-improvement or education (47 percent), weight (38 percent), money (35 percent) and relationships (31 percent). The top five reported goals for 2014 include losing weight, getting organized, saving money, enjoying life more fully, and staying fit and healthy. The next most popular resolutions for the upcoming year include learning something exciting, quitting smoking, helping others, falling in love and spending more time with the family.

While we as a culture like to make new year’s resolutions, we are not that good at reaching our goals. Only 8 percent of those who set new year's resolutions report achieving them. In contrast, 49 percent report infrequent success with achieving their resolutions, and 24 percent state that they always fail to achieve their resolutions.

Younger adults are more successful at achieving their goals, with 39 percent of individuals in their 20s reporting success in meeting their resolutions, while only 14 percent of individuals in their 50s report success in achieving their resolutions. Research suggests that the difficulty changing behavior routines, a lack of specificity in resolutions, a focus on too many resolutions at once and the failure to monitor progress toward resolutions are the main culprits that doom our new year’s resolutions to fail.

With statistics showing that we rarely achieve our new year’s resolutions, we may wonder if it is worthwhile to set these goals. What is the point of continually setting ourselves up for failure? A body of research suggests that there are valid reasons to set new year's resolutions, even in the face of these dismal success rates. Researchers at the University of Scranton found that people who explicitly make new year's resolutions are 10 times more likely to achieve their goals than those who do not explicitly set resolutions. It seems that the act of formalizing a goal (stating it clearly, communicating it to others, thinking about it) increases the potential for success.

Moreover, research has shown that Americans are often very successful in maintaining their resolutions for the short-term. For example, 75 percent maintain through the first week, 64 percent through the first month and 46 percent through the first six months. Resolutions also allow us time to evaluate our lives, remember that our behavior is malleable and focus on improvement, all worthy activities to be reminded of each year.

The benefits of making new year's resolutions are real. With a focus on how you chose your resolution, monitor success and trouble-shoot for plateaus and slips, you can increase your chances of success in meeting your goal. Following the tips below can help increase your odds in being in the select 8 percent who achieve success.

Good luck, and Happy New Year!

» 1) Set one or two resolutions for the new year. By limiting your focus to one or two gals, you will increase your chances of success.

» 2) Use “SMART” goals. According to Dr. John Norcross, we will be more successful if we set goals that follow the SMART acronym, which refers to setting goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-specific. Instead of saying I want to lose weight this year, resolve to lose two pounds each month by walking for 15 minutes four times a week and passing on desserts for all but three meals each week.

» 3) Keep track of your progress. Monitor your progress on a calendar or an app where you can record your progress and be aware of any slips.

» 4) Reinforce small achievements. Plan to reinforce yourself for reaching interval goals. When you lose the first two pounds toward your goal or clean out the first closet in your house, give yourself a reward.

» 5) Anticipate that motivation will decrease. Research shows that the farther away from the resolution setting, the harder it will be to maintain your goals. To remain focused on the importance of your goal, try visualizing it daily, organize reminders (a photo of the new jeans you hope to wear soon on your bathroom mirror, a picture as your screen saver of the vacation site you hope to visit when you save enough money) and reciting the goal to yourself daily when you awaken.

» 6) Restructure routines that don’t support your goals. If you find yourself succumbing to a pastry on your way to work, change the side of the street you walk on to avoid the pastry shop. Likewise, try changing the time of day you work out to see if you might have more energy at another time.

» 7) Make your resolution public. By letting your family, friends and work colleagues know about your goal, you are making yourself accountable to them and increasing the chances you will be successful.

» 8) Invite others to join in your resolution. Research shows that people who work with others to reach a goal are generally more successful in attaining it.

» 9) Be kind to yourself. Even successful resolution-setters report they experience some plateaus and slip-ups. Expect that these will come, and don’t beat yourself up about them. Instead, use these experiences as an opportunity to refocus on your goal and its importance.

— Winifred Lender Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Santa Barbara and can be contacted at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). She provides cognitive-behavioral therapy for sleep regulation issues, anxiety and depression, and completed her undergraduate work at Cornell University and received her master’s and doctorate degrees at the University of Pennsylvania. She completed a fellowship at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia/The University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and is a past president of the Santa Barbara County Psychological Association. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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