It's February already, but I still think about the New Year's resolutions that I made. New Year is always an interesting moment - time to reflect on the year that is ending and to make plans for the year to come. Research shows that around half of us make New Year's resolutions and the most common ones are weight loss, exercise and quitting doing something harmful (like quitting smoking).
Interestingly enough, a common take on New Year's resolution that we see from popular psychology is that most of the people fail. It may be partial or complete failure, but the whole impression or message is that making New Year's resolutions is futile. I surfed the net and came across quite a few blogs or posts like that and tried to trace back the "scientific" source or justification for such statements.
Almost none of what I found on these popular psychology webpages was backed up by an actual research, so as a researcher and a psychiatrist who works with people making resolutions and committing to change, I felt like taking on a task of finding and presenting to you some actual research on New Year's resolutions. I was lucky enough to find a very well-designed research paper by Dr.John Norcross, who happens to be a very well-established researcher in the field of clinical psychology. The design of the study is simply perfect for our purposes, it is published in a reputable journal and the author is kind of a legend among psychologists, so I think we can trust this source .
Dr. Norcross and colleagues have randomly called 1288 telephone numbers in Scranton, PA in the last week of 1995. Notably, two thirds of the people contacted by researchers declined the interview (it is really important for critical appraisal of research papers). Out of the 434 individuals, 159 were making New Year's resolutions (resolvers), and 123 have identified a behaviour they would like to change, but were not making a resolution (non-resolvers). In psychological terms, resolvers were in the action stage of change and non-resolvers were in the contemplation stage of change . Researchers interviewed these people, collected data on behaviours that they wanted to change and a number of other parameters that were necessary for statistical analyses. Majority of participants were women (72%) and almost all of them were Caucasian (99%). The three most common resolutions were weight loss (31%), exercise program (15%) and smoking cessation (12%). There was a significant difference between resolvers and non-resolvers - resolvers were more likely to list exercise program (22%) than non-resolvers (only 9%).
After this initial interview, researchers contacted their study subjects in 1, 2, 3 and 4 weeks and 3 and 6 months to see if they were successful in realization of their New Year's resolutions. The analysis of the data showed that 71% of resolvers maintained their success in the first couple of weeks and almost half of them (46%) - up to 6 months, which was a pretty good result in my opinion. Especially, if we compare it to those who did not make their resolution - only half of them (51%) were successful in changing their behaviour in the first 1-2 weeks, and only 4% were successful at the 6-month time point.
Here, I'd like to point out that the 4% statistic was the one I've seen in many blogs talking about New Year's resolutions and how "everyone fails". I don't know whether writers are just misunderstanding research papers or are dissuading their readers from making resolutions on purpose, but now, after presenting actual and well-designed research data, I can be certain that making a resolution drastically increases our chances for success.
Also, I believe that making a resolution is a good indicator that there is something you are motivated to change and that this motivation is strong enough to increase the changes of success. Second, formulating a resolution is effectively moves you one or two stages up in the stages of change model  - I'll make a special blog about it, but for now you are effectively going from the contemplation stage to the preparation or action stage (depending on how soon you are planning to start to act). Last, but not the least, when making a resolution we are effectively setting a goal and making a plan to achieve it and it increases our chances to achieve it (check out the SMART goals blog for more information).
As my main take-home point, I'd like to say that it makes sense to make resolutions and, even more importantly, we don't have to wait for New Year to make them. I sincerely hope that reading about actual research on this and the continuous success of those who made their resolutions made you more enthusiastic and more motivated to make your goals.
1. Norcross JC, Mrykalo MS, Blagys MD: Auld lang syne: success predictors, change processes, and self-reported outcomes of New Year's resolvers and nonresolvers. Journal of clinical psychology 2002, 58(4):397-405.
2. Prochaska JO, DiClemente CC: Stages and processes of self-change of smoking: toward an integrative model of change. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology 1983, 51(3):390-395.