Last New Year’s Eve, I said I was going to start running more. Twice a week, to be exact. Now, 12 months and 12 jogs later—four or five of which came within the first few weeks of 2014—it’s safe to add this last New Year’s pledge to my tally of failed celebratory resolutions.
That inability to follow through on New Year’s resolutions is pretty typical of Americans, according to one 2014 poll by the University of Scranton psychology department. Based on their results, it seems that while a good majority of people—71 percent, to be exact—hold to these annual promises for the first two weeks, six months later, less than 50 percent of those surveyed actually upheld the resolutions.
Why do we break these promises? And what strategies might help us to be more successful? For answers, we can look back to one decades-old report, published again by the University of Scranton, in 1989. (No word yet on how Scranton tackled the market on New Year’s resolutions.) Under professor John Norcross, researchers tracked the self-change efforts of 213 ambitious New Year’s resolution-makers—ranging from 16 to 75 in age—over a two-year period. To do so, Norcross simply polled the individuals on their resolutions, and tracked progress intermittently through self-reported evaluations.
Similar to the updated 2014 survey, Norcross found that over three-quarters of the testers kept their pledges … for the first week. Those rates steadily went down; two years later, only 19 percent kept the resolution. Also of note: Gender and age bore no significance on the success rates. Mostly, those who failed to follow through on their resolution fell into self-blame and wishful thinking (i.e. wanting the resolution to just “go away”).
What can we learn from those who were successful in their New Year’s resolutions? Alongside the obvious self-reported resolution strategies like willpower and stimulus control, the “fading” tactic—gradual reduction of a vice, as opposed to the “cold turkey” method—and counter-conditioning proved to be the most effective ways of keeping one’s New Year’s plans, say, to lose weight.
And it’s not like these successful testers went all Superman on their plans either; 53 percent of the successful group experienced at least one slip, with each member committing 14 total slips on average over that two-year span. That’s really encouraging for someone like me, because it means that, even if I falter with my running routine, I can take solace in the fact that my peers who do keep on running might slip up as well. How’s that for camaraderie?
Modern Westerners aren’t the first to make New Year’s resolutions—the Babylonians, Romans, and Medieval knights all made vows when the ball dropped too. While we don’t know our forebears’ success rates, if they were anything like us, we can assume there was a good amount of the “I’ll start tomorrow” philosophy. And if that’s the case, at least we’re not alone in our failures.