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Why Do Most New Year's Resolutions Fail?


The tradition of making a new year’s resolution reportedly goes back about 4,000 years to the Babylonians, when one of the most popular resolutions was to return something you had borrowed from someone during the previous year. Today, the most popular New Year’s resolutions are to lose weight and quit smoking, but most people fail at both of these attempts. Why do most New Year’s resolutions fail?

Richard Wiseman, a psychologist at the University of Hertfordshire, led a team of investigators who have come up with an answer to this age-old question. The research team surveyed about 700 people and asked them to describe their strategies for achieving their New Year’s resolutions. The most common goals told to the researchers were losing weight, quitting smoking, or beginning a better relationship.

A total of 78 percent of the participants did not meet their goals, and the researchers found that many of the individuals had focused on the downside of not achieving their goals. This included suppressing their cravings for food and/or nicotine, relying solely on willpower, adopting a role model, or fantasizing about being successful.

According to Wiseman, the strategies adopted by the participants “are frequently recommended by self-help experts but our results suggest that they simply don’t work.” He went on to give an example, saying that “If you are trying to lose weight, it’s not enough to stick a picture of a model on your fridge or fantasize about being slimmer.”

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About one-quarter of the participants did achieve their New Year’s resolutions, however, and the researchers found that the secret for them seemed to depend on five steps: they broke down their goal into smaller, manageable steps, rewarded themselves when they met one of these smaller goals, talked to their friends about their goals, focused on the benefits of succeeding, and kept a diary of their progress.

Overall, the researchers found that people who followed all five strategies had a 50 percent chance of meeting their goals, while those who planned a series of smaller goals had an average success rate of 35 percent. Wiseman noted that “Many of the most successful techniques involve making a plan and helping yourself stick to it.” Other strategies that appeared to be helpful included making only one resolution at a time and viewing occasional lapses as just temporary setbacks.

Strategies that are not helpful include following the advice of self-help gurus and making a New Year’s resolution at the last minute. Wiseman notes that when people make a last-minute resolution, “it probably doesn’t mean that much to you and you won’t give it your all.” When people fail to achieve their goals, he says it can be “psychologically harmful because it can rob people of a sense of self control.”

Do you plan to make a New Year’s resolution for 2010? If you don’t want to fail, the five steps noted by Wiseman and his research team may be your ticket to success. Then you can be among the minority of people who achieve their New Year’s resolution goals.

University of Hertfordshire/Guardian, Dec. 28, 2009