“At the first of the year, I decided it was a new year, and I was going to do my best to not have any surgeries,” she said. “I was going to go one whole year without it. And I made it.”
After years of multiple surgeries including knee replacements and jaw and hand surgeries, Greenwood joined the half of the U.S. population who reportedly make New Year’s resolutions each year.
“I’ll have more in the future, I know,” Greenwood said. “But I wasn’t going to this past year, no matter what they told me.”
New Year’s resolutions have become a punchline in modern society — good intentions met with anticipated failure. Even so, with New Year’s Day now more than a week behind us, millions of Americans are facing the daunting task of keeping their promises for 2014.
Dr. John Norcross, a clinical psychologist at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania and author of “Changeology: 5 Steps to Realizing Your Goals and Resolutions,” has spent more than 30 years studying behavior change and New Year’s resolutions. He suspects the annual resolution’s unreliable reputation stems from unreliable resolvers — “people clinking champagne glasses at 11:59 on New Year’s Eve … jovially throwing something in air” without giving serious thought to their goal.
But Norcross has found failure is not to be guaranteed. In fact, 46 percent of resolvers in one study were able to maintain their resolution for six months or more.
According to a 2012 Harris Interactive Poll, more than two-thirds of resolutions involve health or money. But why do people wait for a new year to undertake improvements that are needed year-round? Jan. 1 is not the only day people can resolve to make a change — although they may have more success, Norcross has found.
“There is a small but appreciable improvement in numbers for New Year’s resolvers,” he said. “When you compare the numbers, it seems you get a boost, probably because it’s more socially recognized. There are lots of people changing, and they’re likely to have more support.”
But no matter when a goal is set, the steps to success are the same.
The difference is in the details
Norcross likens failing resolutions to “magical wishes,” rather than realistic goals. When resolving to lose weight, for instance, your goal shouldn’t be measured in pounds, but actions such as how often you eat between meals or how many times a week you workout.
“Vague resolutions beget vague outcomes,” Norcross said. Instead, “break from one overarching goal into specific outcomes.”
To avoid the operating table last year, Greenwood examined her usual pitfalls and took extra precautions.
“I fall a lot, so I had to make sure to be careful when I was walking or going downstairs. I also avoided climbing up or down ladders and that kind of thing,” she said, adding with a laugh, “and I made sure to stay out of the doctor’s office.”
Successful resolvers work on resolutions before their start date, what Norcross calls “psych and prep.” For instance, preparation for a weight loss resolution could include purchasing workout shoes and clothing, arranging for a workout partner, planning ahead of time when and how long you will exercise.
“Working out the details makes a profound difference,” Norcross said. “Trying to persevere without the requisite preparation is a set up for failure. Give yourself one to three weeks to prepare, and then make another go at it.”
It’s all about who you know
As cliché as it may sound, what Norcross calls “self-efficacy” is an important factor in staying the course.
“Genuine confidence early on is a potent predictor,” he said, but added, “a dollop of healthy skepticism is quite valuable. It keeps you on your toes and looking for things.”
Research also shows resolutions are more successful when made public. Sharing goals with friends and family or posting updates on social media can help keep resolvers accountable for behavior change. Norcross recommends building a reward contract with a partner who will help you maintain changes.
“For instance, if I successfully exercise every day, they will give me a foot rub or take me to a movie. It’s a way to help each other keep moving forward.”
And it doesn’t hurt if your partner benefits too, says Greenwood.
“My husband has spent years having to tend to me — running me back and forth to therapy and doctor appointments. He takes good care of me,” she said. But last year’s resolution “gave him a break, too.”
In fact, support from loved ones can often make or break a resolution.
“What’s fascinating about the helping relationship is that it doesn’t make a big difference in the first couple of weeks,” Norcross said, but added it can make “a profound difference” later on down the road. “It’s a buffer — it’s a tough world out there.”
Two steps forward
Anyone who has made a resolution in the past knows that aiming for perfection is unrealistic.
“The truth is, most people will slip,” said Norcross. But those slips don’t necessarily lead to failure. In fact, he’s found that a little backtracking actually increases overall success rates. “Ironically, the slip helped them fortify efforts and redouble.”
People are most vulnerable to making a mistake during heightened emotional states, be it sadness, anger, stress — even joy. “When people are feeling good they want to celebrate, and they often celebrate with unhealthy behaviors.”
If you slip up, stay positive. “Focus on times you have succeeded versus ruminating on the one time you didn’t,” advises Norcross. “Remember, one slip doesn’t make a fall, continue ... despite temptations,”
According to Norcross’s research — which involved periodically calling to check in with resolvers who agreed prior to Jan. 1 to participate in the study — at the end of two weeks, 71 percent of resolvers are still seeing success. By February, more than 60 percent of resolvers continue to report changed behaviors.
The three-month mark is where successful resolvers can begin to feel the struggle to maintain behavior changes lessen. Explained Norcross: “You are skilled in this behavior. Urges and temptations have begun to decrease. Confidence increases.”
At six months, about 46 percent of resolvers are still seeing success, which according to Norcross represents a successful behavior change.
No longer a resolution, it’s a lifestyle.