New Year’s resolutions need a plan to be successful

There’s nothing like a fresh start.

Just ask the 69 percent of Americans who are prompted by the new year to try to improve their lives.

If this year is anything like the last, weight loss and exercise will again top the list of New Year’s resolutions, according to a recent national telephone poll commissioned by Cigna, an employee benefits company. The survey of 1,000 adults 18 and older found that 28 percent planned to shed pounds while 12 percent vowed to work out more in 2008. Resolutions to quit smoking and to become more fiscally responsible tied for third with 11 percent each. Getting a new job and eating healthier snagged fifth and sixth places.

What seems achievable in early January often loses its luster by Groundhog Day and is but a memory by spring.

The survey found that one in four people are very successful at keeping their New Year’s resolutions. About half say they are somewhat successful.

Why do some people succeed while others don’t?

University of Scranton psychologist John Norcross has spent decades studying how people overcome bad habits. His research and that of others show that planning and preparation are so key to success that Norcross advises not making New Year’s resolutions “unless you are ready.”

How do you know if you’re ready? Ask yourself how confident you are that you can meet your New Year’s resolutions. “If you’re not very confident, then you’re probably not yet prepared to do it,” notes Norcross. But don’t use that fact as an excuse or “an invitation to procrastinate into 2009,” he adds.

Instead, consider making this your New Year’s resolution: Set a specific start date for the habit you want to change. Then use the intervening time to prepare and plan.

So if you decide to shed some pounds, stock your kitchen with healthful fare and remove the tempting food and drink that are likely to undermine your efforts. Get measuring cups and spoons for portion control. Make sure you have a bathroom scale and a place to record your weight and what you eat.

Such self-monitoring is important for success. People who keep their New Year’s resolutions “track their progress by charting and recording their changed behavior,” Norcross says.

The more specific you can be, the better. Good intentions simply aren’t enough. “You need a measurable goal,” says Norcross, co-author of “Changing for Good” (Avon, $12.95).

It’s best if that goal also is realistic. So nix the idea of losing 20 pounds in January. That may work for the “Biggest Loser” reality television show, but experts say that a safe rate of weight loss is half a pound to two pounds weekly. Nor is it helpful to try to go from sedentary living to daily workouts at the gym. Ease into exercise and gradually increase the time and intensity of physical activity.

Those who stick with their resolutions are more likely to set reasonable goals that they know can be achieved. If you’re trying to eat healthier, consider what specific changes you can make meal by meal instead of trying to make numerous changes all at once.

Reminders can serve as guideposts to healthier behavior. If you’re trying to get more exercise, post a note on the television to do some physical activity while you watch. If you plan to eat a healthy breakfast, put a note on the coffee maker or place a cereal bowl on the counter before you go to bed. “We need these prompts to help us,” Norcross says.

Public declarations of your intentions also can help with accountability. Just choose wisely who you tell. Norcross advises sharing your efforts only with family, friends or colleagues who can be supportive without nagging.

It’s also important to prepare for the inevitable slip. Using willpower alone is a myth. “Those who are willpower mavens ironically fail at several times the rate of everyone else,” Norcross says. “At the first slip, they give up.” So it’s important to have a plan for getting back on track and not to view a slip as complete failure.

Studies show that 58 percent of those who stuck to their New Year’s resolutions slipped at least once in January. “Most — 71 percent — said that their first slip actually strengthened their resolve,” Norcross says, noting that these people used it as a learning experience.

Finally, don’t forget to reward yourself for your progress — a key tenet of successful behavior change. That reward can be as simple as saying “good job,” to buying something that you’ve wanted. Or, Norcross says, “it can even be absolving yourself of a chore or something else that you hate to do, like vacuuming.”

Join Sally Squires online from 10 to 11 a.m. Tuesdays at www.leanplateclub.com, where you also can subscribe to the free Lean Plate Club weekly e-mail newsletter.

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