New Year's Resolutions Failed Already? What Science Says You Can Do About It

It started with a kiss. You clinked your glasses of champagne and counted down the clock on New Year’s Eve with high hopes for the new year -- just like every year. But somewhere between that midnight smooch and St. Patrick's Day, you have dropped the ball on your resolution to lose weight.

Many of us have been there.

According to the Statistic Brain Research Institute, less than 60 percent of us will keep our resolutions past February and only about 9 percent of those who make resolutions will feel they have succeeded come Dec. 31.

A large amount -- 32 percent -- of resolutions are weight-related, Statistic Brain’s survey said.

“Typically, we see an increase, like, a two-fold increase in usage of the gym, usually in January and February,” said Devin Maier, managing director for Balance Gym in D.C.

The resolution rush of gym members tends to taper off by the end of February and early March, according to Maier.

But in typical D.C. fashion, politics played a role in changing things a bit this year. Maier said many of the current members who usually flock to the gym starting Jan. 1, didn’t show up until late January, perhaps because of the presidential inauguration.

“I think now that everything is kind of starting to settle down, we’re seeing those people show up now,” he said.

Regardless of when gym-goers officially start their resolutions -- it’s probable that few of them will make it through to the end.

Forty-two percent of people who make resolutions never succeed, according to Statistic Brain’s survey.

Dr. Tonya Dodge, an associate professor of psychology at George Washington University, said commitment is a crucial reason why many resolutions go unfulfilled.

Dodge compares New Year’s resolutions to goals.

“The one important thing is how committed the person is to the goal in the first place,” Dodge said. “So, they might be committed to it for the first two weeks, or three weeks, but then what happens is all of the things that they were also committed to before are still there.”

A working mother, for instance, who tries to juggle another commitment will probably cut that added commitment before she drops any responsibilities to her family or job, Dodge said.

Our own “self-stories” can also get in the way.

Behavioral psychologist Dr. Susan Weinschenk explained in Psychology Today that self-stories are our ideas of who we are and what is important to us. We make decisions -- whether we realize it or not -- that stay true to our self-stories.

“If you want to change your behavior and make the change stick, then you need to first change the underlying self-story that is operating. Do you want to be more optimistic? Then you'd better have an operating self-story that says you are an optimistic person. Want to join your local community band? Then you'll need a self-story where you are outgoing and musical.” Weinschenk said.

Someone can change their self-story by simply writing down their existing self-story and re-writing it to fit their resolution or the behaviors they want to adapt, according to Weinschenk.

Research shows story editing, as covered in psychologist Timothy Wilson’s book Redirect, can lead to lasting changes in behavior.

Habits are also at the crux of resolutions, since many resolutions deal with adding new habits or ditching old ones. In the bestseller “The Power of Habit,” Charles Duhigg explains that to create a habit you have to attach it to an existing habit in order to condition your brain into forming the new habit.

“That’s what we hope is that resolutions develop enough within us that they become habitual in the sense that we don’t have to think about them. We just do them. They become a part of who we are,” she said.

While tackling commitments, self-stories and habits seems overwhelming, there are ways to create resolutions that have a better chance for success -- and it’s not too late to do it.

Dodge has four recommendations for making a strong, achievable resolution.

1. Get Specific

"Goal specificity," as Dodge calls it, is essential to make a lasting resolution.

“What we know is the more specific you are about goal, the more likely it is that you’ll achieve it,” Dodge said.

Common resolutions such as becoming more physically active or eating healthy are too broad.

In place of making one vague resolution, people should make goals that are measurable in both the long and short term, Dodge said.

2. Think Long Term…

A couple of specific and measurable long term resolutions might be to lose 20 pounds or to run a marathon for the first time.

These are the end goals that will serve as motivation when you monitor your progress.

3. ...And Short Term

Along with any long term goal, it’s important to make many short term goals so you can hold yourself accountable and track progress along the way.

“So, sometimes when we see these long goals, they’re a little bit daunting and’s equally as important, and I would argue probably more important, to have those short term goals and to make them specific.,” Dodge said.

Adding in short term goals, such as going to the gym three times this week, then four times the next, will make it manageable to achieve the goal.

4. Challenge Yourself

Making resolutions somewhat difficult helps to keep you interested and excited, according to Dodge.

“You want to have a difficult goal as long as it’s realistic,” she said.

For example, instead of setting a short term goal to run on an elliptical three times a week, try taking new and challenging fitness classes.

Beyond these four steps, one tip Maier has for fitness-minded resolution-makers: don’t workout alone.

“If you are working out in isolation and you kind of, like, don’t assimilate into the community, it’s very easy for you all of a sudden to start not showing up and basically - basically fall off the wagon,” he said.

Maier said gym members who go to group classes and have people to hold them accountable are more likely to stick with it.

But whether your resolutions succeed or not, Dodge believes we can be inspired by our capacity for change.

“I think what keeps us in the resolution business as humans is we know we can be better,” she said.

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