Why I still believe in New Year's resolutions

According to various statistics, weight issues reliably rank at the top of all New Year’s resolutions. Sadly, of those who want to do better in that department, less than 10 percent will succeed. Long-lasting improvements are even more elusive. So why even bother, you might ask. The short answer is, because it can be done if done right.

But what distinguishes promising from futile attempts? Unsurprisingly, weight loss and fitness programs advertising quick results with minimum effort are the most popular, although it should be clear to anyone who has tried one of these before that there is no such thing. Intense and challenging regimens like “crash diets,” on the other hand, can be effective short-term, but the results rarely last. When people feel deprived over extended periods of time, they will not stay with any diet, no matter how beneficial it may be to their health.

For resolutions to be successful, it takes foremost a change of mind, says Dr. Joseph Luciani, a psychologist and author of the “Self-Coaching” book series. Change is hard and there are countless mechanisms at work that make us sabotage our own best intentions. So it’s not the gym, the Pilates class or the diet program that will change a person, but his or her mindset.

Only an altogether different way of thinking can produce different outcomes, he explains. Following patterns that failed before will not lead to better results simply by trying again, even if a little harder this time around. What is needed is a clear break with the past and a willingness to embrace a new way of life. That cannot happen overnight or with a bit of tweaking and twisting here and there.

One of the most common mistakes people make when they decide to do things differently is to think of it as a single event rather than an ongoing process, says Dr. Shawn M. Burn, a professor of psychology at the California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo and author of “Presence of Mind,” a blog focusing on a wide variety of psychological issues. “Change is process and resolutions are only the beginning,” she cautions.

Also, resolution-makers get easily lost when their goals are too vague and without a clear path forward. It all depends on what someone specifically wants to accomplish, she says. Wanting to lose weight, have more energy, or look better may be not enough when it comes to questions like how do you plan to get there from where you are now, or what concrete actions will be required of you? Or, how realistic are your targets considering your real life’s circumstances?

Another matter that rarely ever gets explored sufficiently, she says, concerns the roots of behaviors and actions that led someone off track in the first place. Are there emotional, social or environmental factors involved, not all of which may be in a person’s control?

Yet, not despite but because of the complexities that surround the potential success or failure of resolutions, it is meaningful to keep making them. Because we are not limited by the situations we find ourselves in but have the ability to change them, we can pause, rethink our ways of doing things, and choose to go in another direction – perhaps not altogether or right away, but in small steps and over time. We always have that choice that can eventually lead to a new reality. That is what resolutions are all about. And that is why I keep believing in them. Happy New Year.

TIMI GUSTAFSON, a registered dietitian, health counselor blogger, and the author of “The Healthy Diner — How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun. Follow her on Twitter @TimiGustafsonRD.