A cheat sheet for keeping resolutions

If you are making a New Year’s resolution you would like to keep, consider the example of Charlene Zatloukal.

A year ago, the Lincoln, Neb., artist and writer was so disorganized that she spent much of her time looking for misplaced supplies in her office clutter. To find all the Web sites where she had posted her artwork, “I often had to Google my own name,” she says. But she made a resolution last New Year’s Day to get organized, and now, a year later, she is sticking to it. With the clutter gone and her deadlines and routines under control, she says, “my life is so much easier.

‘I had to give myself time to achieve my goal step by step. If I had tried to change everything at once, I would have set myself up for failure.’

It is no secret that the odds against keeping a New Year’s resolution are steep. Only about 19% of people who make them actually stick to their vows for two years, according to research led by John Norcross, a psychology professor at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania.

But those discouraging statistics mask an important truth: The simple act of making a New Year’s resolution sharply improves your chances of accomplishing a positive change—by a factor of 10. Among those people who make resolutions in a typical year, 46% keep them for at least six months. That compares with only 4% of a comparable group of people who wanted to make specific changes and thought about doing so, but stopped short of making an actual resolution, says a 2002 study of 282 people, led by Dr. Norcross and published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology.

To explore what separates the winners from the losers, I tracked down several people who have kept their resolutions for a while. In addition to Ms. Zatloukal, Michael Haenel, a Phoenix, Ariz., commercial real-estate broker, has for more than a year kept a vow to practice a daily ritual of writing down and reflecting on three things for which he is grateful. Cristina Barcia, a Melville, N.Y., paralegal, has kept for several weeks a pre-holiday resolution to take off a few pounds. And Mark McGuinness, a London coach and trainer, has kept for two years his New Year’s 2008 resolution to meditate every day.

Their stories illustrate several rules for success. Contrary to popular belief, the secret isn’t willpower, Dr. Norcross says; people who rely on hopes, wishes or desire actually fail at a higher rate than others. Instead, the successful resolution-keepers made specific, concrete action plans to change their daily behavior.

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“Getting ‘psyched up’ is helpful for creating motivation before Jan. 1; but after the New Year comes, it’s perspiration time,” Dr. Norcross says. Three of the winners made changes in their environment at home or work. Two make a habit of rewarding themselves for small successes. Three have benefited greatly by tapping other people for support. And while all faced lapses and setbacks, they expected them and didn’t allow discouragement to creep in. Here are the principles they followed:

  • Take one step at a time. Too many people “make large resolutions, such as losing 40 pounds by March, that are just too hard to accomplish,” says Joseph Ferrari, a professor of psychology at DePaul University, Chicago, and author of a forthcoming book on avoiding procrastination. Most do better if they break big goals into small steps.

For Ms. Zatloukal, who works from home, trying to clean up all the clutter and disarray in her office and studio at once would have been “setting myself up for failure,” she says.

Instead, she started by making a list of the underlying reasons for her messiness. Admitting, for instance, that she is by nature a “hoarder,” hanging onto used, nearly empty tubes of paint, was the first step toward seeing that her frugality had become counterproductive.

Step by step, she started tossing out old supplies once a month. She began clearing clutter every day before relaxing in the evening. She consolidated several calendars into one, avoiding conflicts and missed deadlines. And she rewarded herself for small improvements, buying herself an attractive new in-basket as a payoff for sorting the mail.

After 30 days, the small changes became habit, adding up gradually to an overhaul. Now, she says, “it’s easier to meet deadlines when I don’t spend most of my day searching for things.”

  • Get a little help from your friends. To build a deeper appreciation for the good things in his life, Mr. Haenel has enlisted like-minded friends to help. For more than a year, he has been making a list every morning, in a pocket-sized journal he carries with him, of three things for which he is grateful. Recent entries: playing golf with his two sons; a morning run with his dog; a hot shower; his deep and enduring relationship with his wife; a busy schedule; his ability to learn yoga; the taste of a morning cup of coffee with cream; the look of a full winter moon in the night sky, and simply being alive.

Then, he makes a five-minute phone call every day to one of several friends who have agreed to keep the same resolution, and they read their lists to each other. “If I’m not calling my friends in the morning, they’re calling me, saying, ‘Hey, are you still on track?’ That interaction with another person keeps it alive and keeps us sharing and listening.”

After more than a year, Mr. Haenel has filled two journals with his gratitude lists and is working on a third. “Now that I’m focused on being grateful for those things, I think they mean more, and I sense them more,” he says.

  • Change your environment. Another catalyst of change is to alter your surroundings to support your new behavior. Tracking your progress by recording or charting it also helps, Dr. Norcross says.

To keep a resolution she made before Thanksgiving to take off some pounds, Ms. Barcia has joined a weight-loss contest with nine co-workers at the 20-employee law firm where she works, Genser Dubow Genser & Cona. The contestants have stocked the office kitchen with carrots and celery. They weigh in weekly with their office manager.

All day, Ms. Barcia is surrounded by co-workers who are either cheering her on or competing with her. She has skin in the game—a $10 contribution to a winner-take-all office pool. And she has a side bet with her boss, attorney Ken Kern, that she will lose more weight than he does. The stakes: A restaurant gift card.

The friendly battle to best her boss has been highly motivating, Ms. Barcia says. Hearing Mr. Kern talk with the confidence of a lifelong athlete about getting back in shape “brought out the tiger in me,” she says. Displaying the confidence Dr. Norcross says is a strong predictor of success, she told him, “You know what? Bring it!” She has dropped seven pounds and is in a dead heat with Mr. Kern for first place. She wasn’t above bringing him gourmet cheesecake recently as a holiday “gift.”

Mr. Kern, a litigator who hopes to take off 15 pounds, says, “I welcome this challenge, and we have been having a lot of fun with it.” Describing Ms. Barcia’s cheesecake as “sabotage,” he retaliated with a “gift” of cookies for her. “I’m here to win,” he says. A final weigh-in is set for March.

  • Announce your intentions. After trying and failing repeatedly to build meditation into his routine, Mr. McGuinness raised the stakes on New Year’s Day, 2008: He published his resolution to thousands of readers of his blog at www.wishfulthinking.co.uk. The public commitment has made the difference, he says. When he feels like shirking, he asks himself, “what am I going to tell my blog readers?” Clients and readers sometimes ask if he is keeping his resolution.

Mr. McGuinness started by setting an easy “mini-goal,” resolving at first only to sit completely still for five minutes every day. That helped him get past the first hurdle, his reluctance to stop his activity and sit down. After that, it was easy to extend the time to his current 20 to 30 minutes a day.

He advises focusing on the rewards of your new habit. For him, meditation affords the “sheer pleasure of sitting down, letting things go and enjoying being present in the moment.” As an added incentive, he bought himself a meditation cushion; “it’s important to invest something in a new habit,” he says. If he misses a day, “the cushion sits there reproachfully. It’s a little reminder.”

  • Figure out your attachment to bad habits. We often become attached to old behaviors because they benefit us in some way. Psychologists advise figuring out what your bad behaviors do for you and finding healthier substitutes. If you overeat to ease stress, for example, start practicing deep breathing or meditation.

As Ms. Zatloukal became more organized, she realized that her messiness had served an important purpose. When her supplies were strewn about, it was easy to pick them up on a whim and start painting. Now when she is inspired, she has to stop, lay down a cloth and take out her paints. “By the time I actually get down to the business of creating, the inspiration has passed.” Undaunted, she is resolving in 2010 to set up a fully equipped, readily accessible “mini-studio,” enabling her to work spontaneously again.

  • Expect setbacks. People who fail at resolutions, Dr. Norcross says, tend to criticize or blame themselves for slipups. In contrast, each of the resolution-keepers I interviewed brushed off the inevitable setbacks and got quickly back on track. Ms. Zatloukal says her clutter tends to grow around the holidays or big deadlines, but she just sets aside a little time to clean up and moves on.

Mr. McGuinness had a good excuse for missing some meditation time last July: His wife gave birth to twins. But he rebounded by switching his quiet time to the evenings after the babies fall asleep, he says. He has resumed meditating daily.


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