How to Make New Year’s Resolutions Stick: Q&A with an Expert on Change

It's time to set goals for 2013, and a psychologist has some hints for helping you make those changes last

  • Share
  • Read Later
image: New Year's Day
Getty Images

It’s time to set goals for the coming year, and a psychologist has some hints for helping you to make those changes last.

John Norcross, a professor of psychology at the University of Scranton, is one of the world’s leading experts on how people change addictive behaviors. Over the past 30 years, he and his colleagues have studied people who successfully quit smoking, cut back or quit heavy drinking, lost weight or started exercising regularly — including those whose lasting change began with a resolution to start on Jan. 1. He outlined some of his strategies in his new book, Changeology, and discussed how to make resolutions work.

What are some of the most important things you can do to make your New Year’s resolutions stick?

First is believing that it can be done. There’s a lot of cynicism surrounding New Year’s resolutions and it’s unwarranted. Our research indicates that somewhere between 40% to 46% of New Year’s resolvers will be successful at six months. That’s probably a bit higher than the proportion who actually [succeed], because calling people every couple weeks [the way we did for the research] tends to help and thereby increase success. Still, the success rate is much higher than most people presume it would be for a single attempt to change behavior.

The second key [to success] is being realistic. Many people confuse fantasy with reality. Resolutions are supposed to be specific and realistic and measurable. In the book, we talk about the acronym SMART, which comes from business. It stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Time-sensitive.

(LIST: Top 10 Commonly Broken New Year’s Resolutions)

So, let’s say someone wants to cut down on drinking. First of all, is that a realistic goal for heavy drinkers?

This year, about 2% of resolvers [who were surveyed] picked that one, and about 90% of people who have curbed their problem drinking have done so on their own. We make the distinction between hardcore addictions on one hand and more problematic drinking on the other. For problematic drinking, 90% who have done so have done so on their own, so sure, that’s realistic.

So why do we think that everyone needs professional help or at least needs to attend a support group?

First, people who change on their own — we call them self-changers — are not usually getting any media attention. But 90% of people who stopped smoking did it on their own, and the same thing is true with problem drinking, [through] either abstinence or moderation. We don’t want to mislead people about hardcore alcoholics, but even some of them do self-change.

Tell me about the five steps toward lasting change that you lay out in the book.

Over last 30 years, we’ve been investigating how people change on their own, including several studies on New Year’s resolvers. It occurs quite naturally over a series of steps. It begins with psych, which is becoming motivated, specifying the goal and understanding motivation. [We see it as] the two-headed llama: being disgusted with our problem but also drawn toward the new goal. So, rather than just harnessing the power of one, we tell people to do both.

In the psych stage, you [would] also start tracking behavior to see the frequency, when it occurs and what precipitates it.

What’s the next one?

Prep is the second stage. That’s planning, starting to practice the new behavior. You can’t just root out the old. So if the goal were, say, to reduce drinking, what behavior will replace it? At this stage, you also begin to arrange for a support system and make a public declaration [of your goal]. Like any other lengthy journey, you have to do a fair amount of planning.

(MORE: 5 Tricks to Make Your New Year’s Resolutions Stick)

And the third step?

The third is perspire. It’s Jan. 1, you’re actually changing your behavior. Our research has demonstrated that it’s not [insufficient] willpower, it’s rather a series of learned skills that distinguishes successful resolvers from unsuccessful ones.

What would be an example of one of those skills?

One is countering — that is, mastering healthy alternatives. A second is rewarding successes and the flip side of that, not rewarding failures. Some would even say withdrawing the rewards if you don’t get it done.

Isn’t that punishment, which is not very effective?

That’s a huge area of controversy for psychologists. We prefer to withdraw rewards and make them contingent on behavior. “Time out” is short for “time out from reinforcement.” While kids may experience it as punishment, we’re really taking away free time and activity, so if they’re not doing what they are supposed to do, we don’t say “Go and enjoy.” We would like those things to be contingent on behavior, and withdrawing rewards is an excellent strategy.

If someone isn’t on track for whatever they’re supposed to be doing, let’s say losing weight, which is this year’s No. 1 resolution, that could be not watching your favorite TV show. Some say that’s punishment, but it’s technically withdrawal of reinforcement. So you reward yourself when the behavior is on track and withdraw that reinforcement when it is off. It can be anything: reading, playing with the dogs, getting a foot massage. It doesn’t have to be expensive.

It’s all about rearranging the environment. Putting things in to remind you [of the new behavior] and taking things out that trigger the problem. For example, ridding the house of alcohol, not keeping a few in the fridge because someone might come around and putting yellow stickies around the house to motivate yourself.

In 30 years of research, we’ve found [that these types of strategies are] the least frequently used catalysts for change and yet one of most successful. I think part of the myth is that change has to come from willpower. Our lesson of the last 50 years is that our environment can help or hinder our behavior.

If you give people huge drinks, they drink more; with a massive buffet and large plates, people eat more. When you package smaller snacks, people don’t complain.

What’s the fourth step?

Persevere. That’s overcoming slips. There will be obstacles and slips. One of my favorite results from any of our studies is that a majority of successful resolvers said that their first slip actually strengthened their resolution. [We had thought] this is failure. But 71% of resolvers said that their first slip strengthened their desire to change. It’s an erroneous belief that slips lead inevitably into falls.

So what should you do if you slip?

Most immediately, tell yourself that a slip does not need to become a fall. [Instead, think], “This can be my wakeup call and I can immediately get back on track.” We have four to five different things people should be doing. One is analyzing what led up to it.

(MORE: Why Falling off the Wagon Isn’t Fatal)

What about coping with cravings?

For big urges, we have [something] called urge surfing. We know that the most intense urges and cravings last anywhere from two to four minutes. Rather than standing up and letting them crush you like a wave, just surf it, go with it without going into it. It’s like big wave: within two to three minutes, it’s nothing.

And the final step?

Persist. We should mention here the importance of [supportive] relationships. These are wonderful at any time, of course. But while we want people to get their “change team” up and ready early on, in the early stages, most people can make it [without much help]. When people really need [support] is a couple of weeks into the New Year. That’s when you really need support, and that’s when slips start coming on.

Who should you get to support you?

It can be someone else who makes the same resolution; it can be an online community, a family member, someone at work or school. There’s lots of support out there, and people say that it’s quite flattering to be asked. That’s the other side of making a public commitment. It ups the ante in terms of accountability.

How long does it typically take to make a change that sticks?

Typically, it takes several months to stabilize and solidify any new behavior. It’s not a 100-yd. dash; it’s going to take some time. If anyone said you could succeed by taking one whack at calculus or playing the piano for a few weeks, [you wouldn’t believe them]. When it comes to behavior change, people have been promised miraculous results. Our minds are not set realistically about what behavior change takes. On one hand, it’s very encouraging that people can now harness the science of change. On the other hand, we need to be a tad more realistic.

So, do you have any resolutions for yourself?

Yes, it’s to exercise five times a week even when I’m traveling. I travel 25-plus times a year, and I’m usually overeating when I’m traveling so it’s a double whammy. We suggest building on last year’s resolutions if they were successful and then tweaking them a little.

MORE: More Advice from the Experts on Keeping Resolutions