Dear Doctor: I saw on the news that there’s a new study about how to make a successful New Year’s resolution. My wife and I have the same list of resolutions every year, including to stop eating so much junk food and to quit sugar. And around this time every year, we give up on them. We would love to know why it’s hard to follow through.
Dear Reader: It wouldn’t feel like the start of a new year if we weren’t hearing from readers about their love-hate relationship with resolutions. On one hand, the calendar hands you a clean slate. It arrives after weeks of festivities during which overindulgence has been a guiding principle. We’ve eaten and drunk our fill, and we now find ourselves not only ready, but even eager, for a reset. On the other hand, we’re still the same people we were before Thanksgiving signaled the start of the annual bingeing season. All of the reasons we didn’t lose those 10 pounds last August, or didn’t quit our sugar habit in March, still hold true.
Research into the topic of New Year’s resolutions finds that many of us fall off the wagon surprisingly soon. An analysis of the online activity of more than 31 million people suggests that by the end of January, many resolutions are already in the rearview mirror. More rigorous studies from the University of Scranton tracked the slow decline of resolve. By the end of one week, researchers found that 23% of the study participants had already abandoned their resolutions. After three months, half had called it quits. When the researchers followed up two years later, about 20% of participants said they had been successful at keeping their resolutions.
In the study you’re asking about, published last December in the journal PLOS One, the researchers looked at what separated the people who managed to keep their resolutions from those who didn’t. They found that how someone states their goal can make a difference. People whose goals were of the “I will” variety had a higher rate of success than those who approached their resolutions with “I won’t.” Specifically, 59% of the 1,066 study participants with proactive goals considered themselves successful, while only 47% of those with avoidance-oriented goals felt they had succeeded.
In terms of your resolution to eat less processed snack food and to cut down on sugar, you might try flipping the focus. Instead of thinking in terms of what you’re going to eliminate from your diet, try making a specific decision about something that you will add. For instance, you might start with the resolution to eat one piece of fresh fruit at each meal. You can up the ante by agreeing that, before indulging in any kind of snack food, you first have to eat something good for you, like a fresh carrot. That way, even if you do waver in your resolve and slip into old habits with a bar of chocolate or a bag of chips, you’ve also kept your resolution. Change is hard, and even small victories can make it easier to stay on track.
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