UW Today

This is an archived article.

December 23, 1997

How to keep up with those New Year’s resolutions, researchers find commitment is the secret of success

In the next week or so, about 100 million Americans will venture down a well-traveled path paved with bold and sometimes hastily conceived New Year’s resolutions.

It is a route covered with promises to exercise more, lose weight, stop smoking, cut down on alcohol, eat a healthier diet and make new friends. All of these are not necessarily broken promises. According to a new University of Washington survey, 63 percent of the people questioned were still keeping their number one 1997 New Year’s resolution after two months.

The study, conducted by Elizabeth Miller, a UW doctoral candidate in psychology, and Alan Marlatt, director of the university’s Addictive Behaviors Research Center, sought to understand the factors that best predict success in keeping New Year’s resolutions. The researchers focused on health-related resolutions because these types of pledges are the most common and 60 percent of Americans die from illnesses connected to behavior such as overeating, lack of exercise and smoking. In addition, little is known about the process by which people make successful behavior changes.

“The keys to making a successful resolution are a person’s confidence that he or she can make the behavior change and the commitment to making that change,” says Miller. In addition, the study indicates that “resolutions are a process, not a one-time effort that offer people a chance to create new habits.” Even if people are successful, they need to follow-up on their behavior over the years, she adds.

To be successful with your own resolutions, Marlatt, who has studied the subject for more than 20 years, suggests:
? Have a strong initial commitment to make a change.
? Have coping strategies to deal with problems that will come up.
? Keep track of your progress. The more monitoring you do and feedback you get, the better you will do.

Sure-fire ingredients for setting yourself up for resolution failure, he adds, include:
? Not thinking about making resolutions until the last minute.
? Reacting on New Year’s Eve and making your resolutions based on what’s bothering you or is on your mind at that time.
? Framing your resolutions as absolutes by saying, “I will never do X again.”

Data from the new study was largely collected over the Internet, with 264 subjects filling out questionnaires in early January and again in March. The majority of subjects, 90 percent, came from the metropolitan Seattle area, with the remainder coming from across the United States. Fifty-four percent of the respondents were female, and the age range of all subjects was 18 to 66.

While the study focused on primary resolutions, most people made several resolutions, with 67 percent making three or more. Increasing the amount of exercise was the most common primary resolution, being made by 37 percent of subjects. It was followed by: increasing the time devoted to study or work, 23 percent; increasing the consumption of healthy food or decreasing the amount of unhealthy food, 13 percent; reducing the use of tobacco, alcohol, caffeine or other drugs used, 7 percent.

People made significantly more resolutions to start or increase a behavior –222– than to stop or decrease something — 42. Only 65 percent of subjects made their resolutions between Dec. 28 and New Year’s Day. The rest made pledges they considered to be New Year’s resolutions as early as May and as late as the end of January.

Miller also said that persistence can pay off. Of the people who successfully achieved their top resolution, only 40 percent of them did so on the first attempt. The rest made multiple tries, with 17 percent finally succeeding after more than six attempts.

As final words of encouragement to resolution makers, Marlatt has these suggestions:
“Take credit for success when you achieve a resolution, but it is a mistake to blame yourself if you fail. Instead, look at the barriers that were in your way. See how you can do better the next time and figure out a better plan to succeed. You do get to try again and can make behavior changes throughout the year, not only at New Year’s.”

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For more information about New Year’s resolutions, contact Alan Marlatt at (206) 685-1395 or marlatt@u.washington.edu.
For more information about the study, contact Elizabeth Miller at lizza@u.washington.edu or at (206) 543-6694.
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