Do you keep your New Year's resolutions?

Now that the New Year is upon us, it’s time to start fresh with a clean slate. However, while New Year’s resolutions are easy to make, they’re much harder to keep. 

The concept of New Year’s resolutions has been around for centuries, and across many civilizations. Ancient Babylonians made promises to their gods at the start of each year that they would return borrowed objects and pay their debt; Romans made promises to the god Janus, for whom the month of January is named; and during the Medieval era, knights took the “peacock vow” at the end of the Christmas season each year to reaffirm their commitment to chivalry.  

In modern times, during Watch Night services, many Christians prepare for the year ahead by praying and making resolutions; and for Catholics, especially, the fasting period of Lent beginning on Ash Wednesday and ending before Easter, requires making a sacrifice in order to reflect upon self-improvement. Judaism’s New Year, Rosh Hashanah, and the following days that culminate in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is also a time to reflect upon one’s wrongdoings over the year and to offer forgiveness.  

Even with its long, rich history of tradition over many cultures and religions, most people still fall off the resolution-wagon. Are they weak-minded, too idealistic in their goals, or perhaps, simply afraid of change? 

According to recent statistics compiled by the University of Scranton and published in the December 2014 issue of “Journal of Clinical Psychology,” the top 10 New Year’s resolutions are: lose weight; get organized; spend less and save more; enjoy life to the fullest; stay fit and healthy; learn something exciting; quit smoking; help others in their dreams; fall in love; and spend more time with family. In that order. 

Very noble and great in theory, but unfortunately, most of these resolutions will never be achieved by those who make them. In fact, only 8 percent of Americans are successful in achieving their resolutions, and 24 percent never succeed and fail on their resolutions every year. 

Of those who keep their resolutions, 75 percent sail through them in the first week, but this drops to 64 percent after the first month, and only 46 percent have maintained their resolutions after six months. 

Not surprisingly, age matters in keeping your goals: 39 percent of people in their 20s will meet their resolutions each year, while only 14 percent of people over age 50 will achieve their resolutions each year. (Old habits die hard, as the saying goes).  

There are many theories as to why people throw in the towel on their New Year’s resolutions. Alexandra Stewart, a psychologist at Seven Mile Medical Clinic, says people can be unsuccessful with New Year’s resolutions because they often don’t plan and prepare for the changes they state and can see these changes as losing something rather than gaining something.  

Professor Timothy Pychyl from Carlton University in Canada explains that in an effort to reinvent and motivate oneself, “cultural procrastination” ensues; he states that if a meaningful project such as a New Year’s resolution is made manageable, then it has a higher chance of success. Psychology professor Peter Herman and his colleagues from the University of Toronto in Canada coined the term “false home syndrome” when a resolution is unrealistic and out of alignment with the person’s internal view of themselves. 

Herman and his colleagues discovered that when you make a positive affirmation about yourself that you don’t really believe to be true, the positive affirmation not only does not work, but it can also be damaging to your self-worth.  

Furthermore, you may think that if you quit smoking or get fit, your life will infinitely improve, but if or when it doesn’t, many may get discouraged and revert back to their bad habits and old behaviors. Ultimately, it’s about changing deeply held behaviors, which involves re-wiring your brain to think positively.  

One particular scientific field that has gained momentum in the last few years is neuroplasticity, which refers to your brain’s ability to rewire and restructure itself due to learning and experience. Physical changes in a human brain can happen in a few weeks or months, according to many studies on the subject, especially during extensive learning periods. In order to change your (negative) thought process, it requires creating new neural pathways from new (positive) thinking.  

Other research has found that “temporal landmarks” – holidays such as New Year’s Day, for example, or momentous occasions like weddings and birthdays – often motivate aspirational behavior. In other words, these moments provide a reason to change a behavior.  

Although there are websites that help you form a “commitment contract” to stay on track with your goals, perhaps the easiest way to keep resolutions might be to enlist a buddy who is working on the same goals. So if you both have a desire to get in shape for 2015, then working out together at the gym or signing up for a half-marathon together will motivate you both and keeping the resolution becomes more sustainable. 

“There are a number of stumbling blocks with New Year’s resolutions,” said Stewart. “Here are some ideas that can help us succeed: Make the change for yourself rather than anyone else; state the goal in positive, measurable, specific words (i.e. ‘I will increase my fitness by walking for thirty minutes a minimum of 5 days a week,’ versus, ‘I will quit being unhealthy’); prepare for the change and get support from others; and be kind to yourself if you have a slip.”  

She also recommends reading “Changeology” by Dr. John Norcosse if you are looking for more ideas for success with New Year’s resolutions.  

Here are a few other expert tips to help you keep your resolutions: 

Stick to one specific goal rather than several resolutions.  

Celebrate your milestones before reaching the final goal – create some type of reward system, perhaps treating yourself to a special dinner each time you get to the next achievement. 

Take baby steps – if the goal is too big and takes too much effort to do in one go, you will invariably quit. 

Focus and meditate on new, positive thinking every day. Eventually your negative thought patterns will fade away and the new, positive ones will rewire your brain. 

Don’t fixate on the should have, could have, would have. Alternatively, don’t think too far into the future. Instead, stay focused on the present and take it day by day. 

And if all else fails, don’t forget to have a Happy New Year! 

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New Year’s resolutions are easy to make, but hard to keep.

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