NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTIONS: Do they work? How do I keep them?

08-01-2018 Mirwais Mehrab

The start of the new year is the remarkable moment that millions of people undertake an effort in setting new goals, also known as ‘New Year’s resolutions’. This also means a lot of people will make new fitness goals. Therefore I’ve reviewed the scientific literature to investigate resolutions and its effectiveness, and also predictors of success. 

BACKGROUND & EFFECTIVENESS

Studies and statistics show that nearly half of all American adults make New Year’s resolutions. Very common resolutions are ‘exercise more often’, ‘lose weight’, and ‘stop smoking’. Unfortunately, 54% (more than half!) of resolutions are abandoned after six months, from which 36-42% in the first month of the year.

A 2-year study following 200 individuals who made resolutions found only 19% still stuck to their resolutions at the 2 year mark. 42.4% reports to never succeed and fail on their resolution each year. Only 8-9.2% of individuals who make resolutions reported to feel successful in achieving their resolutions.

PREDICTORS OF SUCCESS

Multiple studies showed that the type of resolution, age, and gender did not predict success. However, successful resolvers reported employing significantly more stimulus control, reinforcement, and willpower than the unsuccessful over the 2 years; social support and interpersonal strategies failed to predict success before 6 months but did so thereafter. Also, the belief that one can effect and maintain change, also predicted resolution success. This is called ‘self-efficacy’, which is a measure of personal belief in one's ability to succeed at something.

In contrary, unsuccessful participants tended to use ‘consciousness-raising strategies’, which basically means a hot picture of Sara Sigmundsdottir on your desk will not empower you enough to exercise more often (sorry lads!). Falling short of willpower and failure of stimulus control were reported as the most hindering in sticking to resolutions. These were preceded by a lack of personal control, excessive stress, and negative emotion. Fortunately, research shows that willpower can be forged and shaped: study participants performed better or worse (in tests) depending on their belief in the durability of willpower. Essentially, one has as much willpower as one thinks he/she has. To a certain extent, this may include that the journey to self-improvement will be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

STRATEGIES THAT WORK

Another study from 2002 published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology followed 159 New Year’s resolvers and 123 comparable non-resolvers interested in changing a problem later for a period of 6 months. The researchers found that self-efficacy, skills to change, and readiness to change assessed before January 1st all predicted positive outcome for resolvers. Successful resolvers employed more cognitive-behavioral strategies than non-successful resolvers. Examples of cognitive behavioral strategies or processes are;

  • Self-liberation (making a commitment)
  • Counterconditioning (use substitutes)
  • Helping relationships (getting social support)
  • Reinforcement management (using rewards)
  • Stimulus control (manage your environment)

BEHAVIOR CHANGE IN SCIENCE

All these findings fit well into the ‘transtheoretical model of behavior change’ (TTM), which is an integrative, biopsychosocial model to conceptualize the process of intentional behavior change. Whereas other models of behavior change focus exclusively on certain dimensions of change (theories focusing mainly on social or biological influences), the TTM seeks to include and integrate key constructs from other theories into a comprehensive theory of change that can be applied to a variety of behaviors, populations, and settings—hence, the name ‘transtheoretical’. This model has been widely adopted in the worlds of psychology, medicine, and research. It conceptualizes behavior change in ‘The Stages of Change model’ (see figure 1) as a process (rather than a single event) and it applies for example to self-initiated behavior change such as New Year’s resolutions. A New Year's resolution should signal the advent of the ‘action’ stage of behavior change, a period of time characterized by observable lifestyle changes. Readiness to change, or how prepared a person is to enter the action stage of behavior change, is found to be the best predictor of New Year’s Resolution success.

Figure 1: ‘The Stages of Change model’

Figure 1: ‘The Stages of Change model’

 

FINAL RECOMMENDATION

Although resolutions have a relatively low success rate, people who explicitly make resolutions are still 10 times more likely to attain their goals than people who don't explicitly make resolutions.
To finish, I recommend you to be truly committed to specific goals (SMART, not vague!) and have faith in your ability to succeed. Enjoy the support of your team and ask your coaches for help. Most of all: don’t forget to enjoy the journey and conquer your fitness goals!

Interested in guidance in establishing goals, understanding your motivation, and using strategies to set a plan of action? Ask your local coach for help, or shoot me a message at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

SOURCES:

  • Bandura, A., & Locke, E.A. (2003). Negative self-efficacy and goals revisited. Journal of Applied Psychology, 88, 87-99.
  • Norcross, J.C., Mrykalo, M.S., & Blagys, M.D. (2002). Auld lang syne: Success predictors, change processes, and self-reported outcomes of New Year's resolvers and nonresolvers. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 58(4), 397-405.
  • Norcross, J.C., Ratzin, A.C., & Payne, D. (1989). Ringing in the new year: The change processes and reported outcomes of resolutions. Addictive Behaviors, 14(2), 205-212.
  • Norcross JC, Vangarelli DJ (1988) The resolution solution: Longitudinal examination of New Year’s change attempts. Substance Abuse 1(2):127–134
  • Prochaska, J.O., DiClemente, C.C., & Norcross, J.C. (1992). In search of how people change: Applications to addictive behaviors. American Psychologist, 47(1), 1102-1114.
  • Prochaska, J.O., Redding, C.A., & Evers, K. (2002). The Transtheoretical Model and Stages of Change. In K. Glanz, B.K. Rimer & F.M. Lewis, (Eds.) Health Behavior and Health Education: Theory, Research, and Practice (3rd Ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, Inc.
  • Prochaska, J.O. & Di Clemente, C.C., (1982). Transtheoretical therapy: Toward a more integrative model of change. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice, 19(3), 276-288 Figure 2, p. 283.
  • New Year’s resolution statistics (January 1, 2017). Retrieved from https://www.statisticbrain.com/new-years-resolution-statistics/ on January 4, 2018
  • Luciani: Why 80 Percent of New Year’s Resolutions Fail (December 29, 2015). Retrieved from https://health.usnews.com/health-news/blogs/eat-run/articles/2015-12-29/why-80-percent-of-new-years-resolutions-fail
Mirwais Mehrab

About Mirwais Mehrab

Mirwais Mehrab is a medical doctor in training and sports science researcher at Erasmus University Medical Centre. As a strength and conditioning specialist, he runs ‘Mirwais Training System’ and aims to continuously optimize athletic education and performance through publishing extensive sports scientific research. By doing so, his mission is to create new insights and to serve as a guide to deeper understanding of crucial subjects in the world of sports and athleticism. He also represents ‘Team We Lift’ as a three time National Olympic Weightlifting Champion and has trained athletes and coaches all over the world since 2013.

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