Commonly Broken New Year's Resolutions
About 40 percent of us will resolve to change our lives in some way in the new year, and the majority of us will fail. Here's why—and how you might be able to beat the odds.
broken resolutions
We could have predicted the top resolutions for this year, as measured by a commissioned Harris Interactive poll conducted in December among 3,036 U.S. adults: lose weight (21 percent), improve finances (14 percent), exercise (14 percent), get a new job (10 percent), eat more healthfully (7 percent) and stop smoking, manage stress better and improve a relationship (5 percent each). Making all those changes sounds good to us, too. Unfortunately, New Year's resolutions are notoriously difficult to keep, and only about 40 percent of us are still holding onto them in July, says John C. Norcross, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Scranton and author of the new book Changeology: 5 Steps to Realizing Your Goals and Resolutions.

Don't be dissuaded, though. In a study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, Norcross compared people who wanted to change their behavior and made a resolution to do so ("I'm going to talk to my mother-in-law, whom I haven't spoken to in five years"—a real resolution) with people who were equally keen to change their behavior yet hadn't put it into resolution form ("I really wish my mother-in-law and I still talked to each other."). After six months, only 4 percent of the non-resolvers had made the change, which makes the 40 percent of successful resolvers look pretty impressive. As Norcross says: If you make the shift from wanting to trying, you're 10 times more likely to succeed.

We've identified some reasons why people might fail—but have also included research-backed strategies for how to make this year's resolutions (finally!) stick.
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Lose Weight
Why it's tricky: Despite good intentions, our nation (and everyone in it) just keeps getting heavier, found a recent report from Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which also projected that obesity rates in every state are on course to top 44 percent by 2030. What's more, 13 states—mostly in the South—could have obesity rates above 60 percent!

Make it stick: People tend to think about "losing weight" and "exercising" as two separate resolutions, says Norcross (click to the third slide). While he says science used to advise putting energy into tackling one behavioral change at a time, newer research from the University of Rhode Island has shown that combining two related resolutions (exercise more + lose weight, stop smoking + manage stress, save money + stick to a budget) makes it more likely you'll stick to both.
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Make—and Save—More Money
Why it's tricky: Personal savings rates are up (slightly), and (slightly) more Americans are feeling financially better off than worse off. Yay, right? Well, keep in mind that companies plan to offer raises of just 2.9 percent in 2013, according to the U.S. Compensation Planning Survey and research by the compensation consulting firm Mercer, which barely keeps up with inflation. And many Americans are still making up for losses sustained over the past few years.

Make it stick: Never say "can't." A study in the August 2012 Journal of Consumer Research looked at the power of language when we're trying to talk ourselves out of something. When participants framed a refusal as "I don't" (for example, "I don't waste my money on expensive lunches") instead of "I can't", they were more successful at resisting temptation.
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Work Out
Why it's tricky: While health club attendance surges 30 to 50 percent at the start of the year, it's usually back to normal by March, according to data from the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association. It's also hard to incorporate exercise into a busy life: Norcross himself admits that his resolution is to exercise five times a week—usually not a problem, but will be a major challenge when he's traveling.

Make it stick: Research has shown that "self-monitoring" (a clinical term for charting or recording your progress) increases the probability of you keeping your resolution. This is due to the Hawthorne effect, which causes us to try harder when we think someone is keeping an eye on us. Try MyFitnessPal, a tracking app that's a streamlined upgrade of the paper fitness diary.
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Get A New Job
Why it's tricky: By the end of 2010, it took unemployed people on average 10 weeks to land a new job, or 20 weeks to give up looking (that's double the amount of time it took job seekers to find something or give up in 2007).

Make it stick: One of the major revelations in Changeology is that confidence is a big predictor of success: In this case, you need to not only believe that there are appealing jobs out there for you but also that you can realistically continue your search even when things aren't looking up.
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Eat Healthier
Why it's tricky: Only 33 percent of adults eat the recommended daily amount of fruit, and only 27 get enough vegetables, found surveys from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Make it stick: Start by satisfying your afternoon munchies with an apple instead of a cookie. If you do this 10 times in a row, you'll actually start to crave the fruit at that time of day, advises Susan B. Roberts, PhD, a Tufts University professor of nutrition as well as professor of psychiatry. This strategy has worked for many of the out-of-control snackers in the weight loss groups she's led.
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Stop Smoking
Why it's tricky: It takes the average smoker five to seven attempts to kick this habit for good, says Norcross.

Make it stick: Smokers, take heart—Norcross has studied change for more than 30 years, and despite cigarettes' addictive pull, his data shows this resolution is not harder (or easier) to stick to than any other. The thing to remember, he says, is that every smoker lapses. He adds that one study showed that 71 percent of successful resolvers claimed their first slip actually strengthened their efforts.
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Manage Stress Better
Why it's tricky: We don't know how to give ourselves a break, even when we deserve it. In 2010, Americans neglected to take 424 million paid vacation days that were due to them.

Make it stick: This resolution is so vague, it basically sets you up for failure, says Norcross. In fact, it's pretty close to wishful thinking, which, as Norcross mentioned, has only a 4 percent chance of success. Find a strategy that helps you achieve your overall goal (for example, meditating more, drinking less, using your vacation days) and then figure out a way to measure it. One of Norcross' colleagues has taken this to heart: He's resolving to "sit less" this year, so he's tracking the percentage of computer time he spends sitting versus standing or using his laptop on the treadmill.
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Improve a Relationship
Why it's tricky: You can't force the other person in the relationship to make the same resolution.

Make it stick: Find specific ways by which you can strengthen your connection, says Norcross. Instead of resolving to, say, talk to your young son more, do what one of his successful study participants did: Resolve to spend 10 minutes a day with your son before bed.

Next: What if you do everything right and still break your resolution?