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Those New Year’s Resolutions, Do They Work?

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

It occurred to me that it would be interesting to write an article about the approaching new year, especially the tradition of making resolutions. I did a Google search with the expectation that I would find little or nothing on the topic. I was surprised by the large numbers of articles that did appear, including psychological research, and those in newspapers and popular magazines.

Resolutions are promises we make to ourselves about change habits and behaviors we do not like. For example, I might want to Examples of behaviors we plan to: 1. Lose weight, 2. Eat less fatty foods, 3. Reduce my consumption of alcohol, 4. Give up smoking, 5. Spend less money on frivolous things, 6. Put money in the bank or in stocks, 7. Do community work to give back to others who are less fortunate, 8. Exercise for better health, among many other things about myself that I want to change.

Do these efforts at self improvement succeed?

Unfortunately, there is a long history of failure according to an article in the American Psychologist, Vol 57(9), Sep 2002, 677-689. Even though they fail, people persist in their attempts to change. The authors of the article describe, “failure and renewed effort as a “false hope syndrome” characterized by unrealistic expectations about the likely speed, amount, ease, and consequences of self-change attempts.” This sets the person up for endless cycles of self defeat.

Additionally, many psychologists report that success or failure at self improvement depends a lot on two factors: 1. Motivation and, 2. Self efficacy, or the extent to which an individual feels in control of their life. A person who is motivated and who sees their self as being able to control their behavior and make things happen, is most likely to succeed at new years resolutions or any other self help goal.

Does that mean that we others are doomed to failure? No, not at all.

First, its important to narrow the number of resolutions made down to one.

Second, its important to set realistic and achievable goals. Even if you do not lose weight you can eat foods that are much healthier for you. Also, smoking is an addiction and not only a bad habit. If a resolution has as its goal to stop smoking then help will be needed such as attending Smoke Enders meetings, etc.

Third, one of the problems with giving up old behaviors is not having something to replace them with. So, instead of eating high calorie foods, substitute lots of vegetables as just one example.

Fourth, do not expect immediate achievement of goals. It takes time to give up old habits and replace them with new and healthier habits. Too many people give up if they do not see immediate results. Thats why its important to be realistic in setting goals.

In any case, the capacity for change us unlimited, in my opinion. Begin by setting a small goal that provides a maximum opportunity for success. Nothing succeeds like success and that provides increased motivation to change other things.

Happy New Year and please submit your comments and questions.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD


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