To make or not to make a New Year’s resolution

Thinking of making a New Year’s resolution for 2008? Harvey Skinner, a psychologist and dean of York’s Faculty of Health, says he has only once made a New Year’s resolution. As an avid runner, Skinner made a resolution for 1979 to complete a 22-km run sometime during 1980. He was unsuccessful in achieving this goal, although he did continue to run on a regular basis. Some years later, Skinner passed the 22-km threshold and has since completed seven 42-km marathons. 

Right: Harvey Skinner

"I now approach my New Year’s Eves in bliss, knowing that I will not even consider making a resolution," chuckles Skinner.  

"Human motivation is rather curious," says Skinner. "People make the same resolutions year after year – an average of 10 times – with limited success. Think for a moment: if your resolution last year was successful, you wouldn’t have to try again! Also, New Year’s resolutions have a short life, with some 25 per cent of people giving up trying by the end of the first week." 

Skinner says our common New Year’s resolutions often target a change in health behaviour such as quitting smoking, initiating an exercise program or dieting to lose weight. "We tend to underestimate how difficult it is to change and maintain it. Indeed, we have an optimism bias – ‘I’m different from everyone else and more likely to succeed.’ During the pleasure and social pressure of a New Year’s get-together, we jump at making a change commitment before we are ready." 

Even those who are ultimately successful at self-change usually make five or so serious attempts before achieving success, says Skinner. "One study found that those who fail this year at their New Year’s resolution have a 60-per-cent chance of making the same resolution again next year," he says. "This cycle of failure and then renewed effort has been termed the false-hope syndrome by psychologists Janet Polivy and Peter Herman.

"Think about how successful you or a family member has been in achieving and maintaining weight loss. Research shows that some 95 per cent of those who lose weight fail to maintain their success. Indeed, the weight is usually regained within a few years and many go on to gain additional weight," says Skinner. 

For those who want to be more successful, Skinner advises them to consider three key factors: their readiness for change, the importance of the proposed change and their confidence that the change will last.

Left: Research shows that most people who lose weight regain it in a few years

Skinner advises those thinking of making a resolution to first take a close look at their own readiness for change. Most people, he says, are not currently at a point where they are amply prepared to take action. "Many are just thinking about change (‘to be or not to be’) or are not yet considering it," says Skinner. "You need to reach a point where the benefits of the proposed change outweigh your concerns (costs). This necessitates taking an honest look at your readiness. It is unlikely that on New Year’s Eve most people are at a point where they are prepared for action. Don’t jump out of the plane too soon before you have checked your altitude, parachute and landing site."

Second, Skinner says resolution makers should examine the importance of the proposed change. "Look at good things about your current behaviour and what are the concerns," he says. "What would it take for you to seriously consider changing? Are you making this choice because you want to, rather than because you feel pressured or should do it to please someone else?"

And finally, Skinner advises building "confidence that you can achieve lasting change as repeated failures after New Year’s resolutions eat away at your confidence – a key reason for avoiding resolutions. Instead, think about what you have learned from previous attempts and what you will do differently this time.

"What emotional and practical supports do you need? Look at your saboteurs – what has tripped you up in the past. Talk to others who have been successful and find out what worked for them. These steps will help increase your confidence in being able to achieve your goal," says Skinner.

As midnight on Dec. 31, 2007 approaches, the social pressure is mounting to make a resolution for 2008. 

“Ready, set…wait!” says Skinner. "Save yourself the bother and guilt."