What are some of the best New Year's resolutions? originally appeared on Quora - the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.

Answer by Jason Shen, Product & Growth in Tech, on Quora:

This is sort of a weird question, as who can actually define "best?" My subjective opinion would be any kind of resolution that

  1. Improves your well-being or the well-being of other sentient creatures
  2. Has a decent chance of actually being achieved

I'll let people think about the first aspect for themselves and focus on helping with the second aspect of actually achieving whatever it is they are aiming at.

I was the lead instructor for PSYCH 15S - a student-initiated course on the Psychology of Personal Change at Stanford University in Spring of 2009. The first half of the course was reading papers, and the second half was putting the learnings into action via a personal change project that each student did. Don't remember the final numbers but I'd say a majority of the students made significant headway into their behavior change.

There is some great research out there on the study of how people can self-initiate and sustainably maintain behavior change (smoking, drinking, diet, exercise, etc.)

Achievable resolutions have several qualities:

  • They are typically behavioral changes that are largely within your control (vs Year-long goals, which are sometimes things that you don't have a lot of control over)
  • They are concrete and measurable (otherwise how will you or anyone else know that you achieved them?)
  • You have a strong desire to make the change (sounds obvious but can be overlooked. Do you want it or do you *want to want it*?)
  • You believe that you actually can and will maintain this behavior change (again, also sounds obvious but most people don't think about this)
  • You are ready to make this change NOW (not in a few weeks or a few months. Everything is set to go right away.)

One stunning fact: in several studies published in peer-reviewed journals of 150+ people, about 40% of participants in each study who could be reached at six months said they were still successful with their resolutions.

Of course, you can say "Well - I'd keep my resolution if I was in a study" or "I wouldn't pick up the phone when the researchers called if I had failed my resolution." And maybe those things inflate the numbers, but I think it's pretty clear that it is entirely possible to change your behavior.

Let's dive into the data on one such study, shall we?

Auld Lang Syne: Success Predictors, Change Processes, and Self-Reported Outcomes of New Year's Resolvers and Nonresolvers

John C. Norcross, Marci S. Mrykalo, and Matthew D. Blagys - University of Scranton - JOURNAL OF CLINICAL PSYCHOLOGY, Vol. 58(4), 397-405 (2002)

  • 159 "resolvers" interested in changing vs. 123 non-resolver control subjects (subjects are all white, mostly female, and located in NE Pennsylvania).
  • Get structured telephone interviews before Jan 1 and 1-2 weeks, 3-4 weeks, three months & six months after Jan 1.
  • Weight loss, exercise program, and quitting smoking were top change processes.
  • END RESULTS: "Although the success rates of New Year's resolutions obviously depend on the interval and criteria considered, the proportion of self-reported continuous success was 46% at six months. This figure is consistent with, although a bit higher, than that reported previously in samples of student and community volunteers (Gritz et al., 1988; Marlatt & Kaplan, 1972; Norcross et al., 1989)."
  • KEY FINDINGS: (Parenthetical additions are mine) "Nine processes differentiated (with statistical significance) successful and nonsuccessful resolvers at one and two weeks. Successful resolvers reported using - self-liberation (aka willpower) - reinforcement management (aka rewards or incentives) - stimulus control (aka reminders for the right behavior) - avoidance strategies (aka avoiding situations where you would do the wrong thing) - positive thinking significantly more than nonsuccessful resolvers. By contrast, nonsuccessful resolvers employed - self-reevaluation (thinking about how your problem is hurting you) - self-blame - wishful thinking, and - minimize threat (tell yourself the problem isn't that bad) significantly more than the successful resolvers." (so don't do those things!)

Bottom Line: It is entirely possible to make significant changes to your behavior, but it takes serious commitment and some strategy to do it effectively.


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