It’s a yearly rite for millions: Create an unrealistic goal for the next year, then watch in horror as that New Year’s resolution slips out of grasp.
Maybe that’s why only about 40 percent of Americans make a New Year’s resolution each year, according to polling from the Marist Institute for Public Opinion.
At first glance, the success rate for those resolutions don’t exactly inspire, either. Only about 46 percent of resolution makers were still sticking to their resolution six months into the year, a 2002 study in the Journal of Clinical Psychology found.
But researchers say that, despite the tough success rates, making a resolution is one of the best ways to actually make a change, particularly if realistic goals are set in the first place. Resolutions involve us moving our goals from mere contemplation into more concrete action, they say. And it’s easy to explain why so many New Year’s resolutions are tough to stick to.
“You are making it your New Year’s goal because you keep failing at it,” Tim Pychyl, a psychologist at Carleton University in Ottawa, tells Popular Science.
In other words, if it weren’t tough, we wouldn’t have to make such a concerted effort to accomplish it.
That’s where resolutions come in, Dr. John Northcross, a clinical psychologist at the University of Scranton and the author of the 2002 study on resolution success, tells NPR.
“I was tired of people saying resolutions never succeed, we shouldn’t even try them,” Northcross says. So Northcross decided to study people who had the same goals as resolution-makers, and who wanted to make a change, but who didn’t make a formal resolution.
What he found was impressive: 46 percent of resolution-makers successfully worked toward their goal, while only 4 percent of those who didn’t make a resolution saw their desired outcome become a reality six months later.
The key, Northcross says, is taking the change seriously and really, truly trying.
“[Resolution makers] move from thinking about it to doing it — what we call from the contemplation stage — to the action stage,” Northcross tells NPR.
Northcross’ research found one of the best ways to stick to those resolutions was to tell other people about them. That way, when our own intrinsic motivation is flagging — or the cookie we promised we wouldn’t eat looks particularly tempting — our family or friends can support us in accomplishing the goal (perhaps by hiding the cookie jar.)
But don’t let telling everyone about your laudable resolution lull you into complacency.
“Sometimes, it’s the absolute worst thing you could do, to tell everyone, because it already gives you some kind of reward,” Pychyl, the Ottawa psychologist, tells the BBC. “Present self-wins, future self-losses.”
Don’t feel guilty about revising your goals, either — whether they’re about your financial life, love life or weight loss. After all, as you pursue that goal you may learn new things about your spending habits, your body or whatever other area the resolution seeks to change.
“When you set weight loss goals, you don’t really know how your body is going to react or what is going to be attainable,” Lisa Ordonez, a professor at the University of Arizona's Eller School of Business, tells Vox. “If you haven't done it for awhile, you need to do your research and revise your expectation.”
Women are more likely than men to make New Year’s resolutions related to self-improvement, according to polling released this week by YouGov. For example, while 41 percent of women told YouGov they plan to eat healthier and exercise more next year, only 33 percent of men said the same.
When it came to other goals — like taking up a hobby or reading more — men and women made resolutions at roughly equal rate, the poll found.
YouGov also found that 20 percent of people don’t plan to stay up till midnight to ring in the New Year on Dec. 31. It could be a head start on a “more sleep” resolution.