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How to Make New Year’s Resolutions Stick


Here is an article from Time that does a good job of outlining what to expect with New Years resolutions. Click on this link to read the full article.

It’s time to set goals for the coming year, and a psychologist has some hints for helping you to make those changes last.

John Norcross, a professor of psychology at the University of Scranton, is one of the world’s leading experts on how people change addictive behaviors.  Over the last 30 years, he and his colleagues have studied people who successfully quit smoking, cut back or quit heavy drinking, lost weight or started exercising regularly— including those whose lasting change began with a resolution to start on January first. He outlined some of his strategies in his new book, Changeology and discussed how to make resolutions work.

What are some of the most important things you can do to make your New Year’s resolutions stick?

First is believing that it can be done. Resolutions are supposed to be specific and realistic and measurable.  In the book we talk about the acronym SMART, which comes from business. It stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Time sensitive.

Tell me about the five steps towards lasting change that you lay out in the book.
Over last 30 years, we’ve been investigating how people change on their own, including several studies on New Year’s resolvers.  It occurs quite naturally over a series of steps.  It begins with “psych,” which is becoming motivated, specifying the goal, and understanding motivation. In the psych stage, you [would] also start tracking behavior to see the frequency, when it occurs and what precipitates it.

What’s the next one?
Prep is the second stage. That’s planning, starting to practice the new behavior. You can’t just root out the old. So if the goal were, say, to reduce drinking, what behavior will replace it? At this stage, you also begin to arrange for a support system and make a public declaration [of your goal].  Like any other lengthy journey, you have to do a fair amount of planning.

And the third step?
The third is ‘perspire.’  It’s January 1st, you’re actually changing your behavior.  Our research has demonstrated that it’s not [insufficient] willpower; it’s rather a series of learned skills that distinguishes successful resolvers from unsuccessful ones.

What would be an example of one of those skills?
One is countering; that is, mastering healthy alternatives.  A second is rewarding successes and the flip side of that, not rewarding failures. Some would even say withdrawing the rewards if you don’t get it done.

What’s the fourth step?
Persevere.  That’s overcoming slips. There will be obstacles and slips. One of my favorite results from any of our studies is that a majority of successful resolvers said that their first slip actually strengthened their resolution.  [We had thought] this is failure.  But 71% of resolvers said that their first slip strengthened their desire to change. It’s an erroneous belief that slips lead inevitably into falls.

What about coping with cravings?
For big urges, we have [something] called urge surfing. We know that the most intense urges and cravings last anywhere from 2-4 minutes. Rather than standing up and letting them crush you like a wave, just surf it, go with it without going into it.  It’s like big wave:  within 2-3 minutes, it’s nothing.

And the final step?
Persist.  We should mention here the importance of [supportive] relationships. These are wonderful at any time, of course. But while we want people to get their “change team” up and ready early on, in the early stages, most people can make it [without much help]. When people really need [support] is a couple of weeks into the New Year. That’s when you really need support and that’s when slips start coming on.

Who should you get to support you?
It can be someone else who makes the same resolution; it can be an online community, a family member, someone at work or school. There’s lots of support out there and people say that it’s quite flattering to be asked. That’s the other side of making a public commitment. It ups the ante in terms of accountability.

How long does it typically take to make a change that sticks?
Typically, it takes several months to stabilize and solidify any new behavior. It’s not a 100-yard dash; it’s going to take some time. 

So, do you have any resolutions for yourself?
Yes, it’s to exercise 5 times a week even when I’m traveling. I travel 25 plus times a year and I’m usually overeating when I’m traveling so it’s a double whammy.  We suggest building on last year’s resolutions if they were successful and then tweaking them a little

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