Making New Year's Resolutions More Managable
> 1/2/2007 1:40:15 PM

Millions of Americans made some form of New Year's resolution this year. Though they vary in size, specificity and motivation, many of these resolutions will return at about the same time next year. Why do so many of us find it difficult to fulfill our plans for a better self, and why do we make them in the first place? Is there a better way to go about improving one's position? How many of our issues resolve themselves through practice, and how many depend on changing perspective?

The most common resolutions involve plans for a healthier new year: weight loss, physical fitness, more time devoted to family and stress relief. Many of us hear a constant media chorus harping on the health problems in our country and others: we are largely overweight; we smoke, drink and eat too many foods that damage our bodies. And most people are aware of their bad habits. So why are these resolutions so hard to keep? When examining buying patterns it becomes obvious that we do, at the very least, spend lots of money trying. In 2004, Americans spent an estimated $46 billion on diet and fitness programs, drugs and surgeries. Yet the  obesity epidemic shows no signs of slowing down, and the health-care costs of treating preventable illness continue to rise on a disturbing scale.

In the end, that factor determining rates of success is very often the level of emotional investment we make in our plans to change. Studies and statistics make it clear that fear, though it leads us to make grand plans for self-preservation, is often not a sufficient motivator:

Doctors at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis found that among a group of smokers who had had surgery to remove early-stage lung cancer, nearly half picked up a cigarette again within 12 months. Most started smoking within two months. In another study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University, nine out of 10 patients who'd recently had coronary bypass surgery failed to take steps to improve their nutrition, exercise more and reduce stress.

Many gyms and diet programs will see a surge in membership at the first of the year, but as our initial sense of panic fades, we very often find ourselves slipping back into the very same habits that concerned us from the start. We should make sure that the changes we promise are things we want to do, not just things that we unfortunately need to do. By looking at the changes as unpleasant chores that compromise our ability to do the things we enjoy, we set ourselves up for failure. Attaching negative emotions to personal goals only makes us less likely to achieve them. Doctors and self-help experts recommend a different approach: instead of focusing on the negativity entailed in giving up habits that we find familiar and enjoyable, think of the healthier, happier person who will emerge from the change. If we do not enjoy the process of improvement, we will find fewer reasons to keep it up. Modesty may also help, as grand plans are more likely to disappoint. Tempering habits may be easier than eliminating them altogether.

Supportive social networks are also one of the key predictors of success. People whose friends do not share or sympathize with their efforts at self-improvement find it more difficult. For example, one will have a much harder time giving up tobacco when surrounded by friends who smoke. TV ads and doctor's warnings are usually less effective agents of change than positive reinforcement within social groups. Self-analysis is also crucial. Those who actively look for the underlying causes of certain behaviors are also more likely to conquer them.  If we aim to remedy problems without seriously trying to figure out where they originate, the task will simply be greater. Therapy can contribute significantly, but some believe that eliminating unhealthy options is the only way to prevent certain behaviors. Several major cities in the United States have passed recent bans on smoking in public areas, and some companies refuse to hire smokers altogether.

If individuals are not emotionally dedicated to reaching stated goals, they very well may need to try again next year. But trying at all is certainly better than doing nothing.

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