A January tradition: Keep resolutions realistic

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As the glittering ball drops in Times Square at midnight, champagne flutes clink and kisses are exchanged to ring in a new year -- and celebrate the passage of time. Interwoven among these traditions is the New Year's resolution, which hangs heavily over the heads of those who dare to utter them in hopes that next year will be better than the last.

New Year's resolutions date to 153 B.C. when Janus, the Roman god of beginnings and endings, was placed at the head of the calendar.

With two faces, Janus, it was said, looked back on past events and forward to the future. When the Roman calendar was reformed, the first month of the year was renamed January in his honor, and established Jan. 1 as the day of new beginnings.

This tradition has spanned centuries with research showing that about 85 percent of people "resolve to resolve" each year.

"New Year's is the time to make resolutions. It's kind of the social tradition and there's a lot of social pressure to do just that," said Michael Scheier, professor and head of the Department of Psychology at Carnegie Mellon University.

Social pressure to make resolutions is often what Mr. Scheier said sets people up for failure.

"I think because it's more of a social tradition than something that's being motivated by some internal desire to change something, there's not a big commitment for most people," he said. "There's also kind of the built-in assumption that no one really expects you to maintain the resolution."

To date, Sue Catalogna of West Mifflin has evaded this social tradition and instead resolves "not to resolve."

"It's just not something that was ever part of my lifestyle growing up," she said. "No one in my family has ever done anything like that so I just never made any resolutions."

She said she naturally does not eat or drink too much and therefore never really thinks about giving anything up.

"The way I look at it is, if there's something that I really like, then why would I want to give it up?" she said.

Giving up 'bad' is not easy

But, for those who want to break bad habits, Mrs. Catalogna said she thinks New Year's resolutions are a good thing and cited a friend who successfully gave up smoking after resolving to do so.

Quitting smoking is one of many resolutions centered on modifying behaviors, which Mr. Scheier described as habitual and ingrained.

"When you try to stop them, they interfere with the regularity of life," he said. "If behavior change was easy, we wouldn't have any smokers, we wouldn't have any people who don't exercise and we wouldn't have any people who are obese or who drink too much. There are reasons why these behaviors emerge and there are lots of things that sustain them, so they are hard to change."

Jennifer Devlaeminck of Monroeville beat the odds last year when she lost weight and stayed in shape

"That is the first time in my 52 years that I have kept a New Year's resolution," she said. "I am very proud of myself."

She attributed her success to gradual lifestyle changes as opposed to going "gung ho." Each month she said she set a reasonable goal for herself, such as walking more, and she participated in a few races that helped her get in shape. She also changed her eating habits to include not eating after 8 p.m., enjoying larger meals earlier in the day, and paring down her consumption of sweets.

"Each one was gradual," Mrs. Devlaeminck said. "I didn't go cold turkey on anything."

For 2013, her resolve is to maintain last year's successful weight loss.

Losing weight and getting in shape notoriously top the list of New Year's resolutions. Samantha Keller, manager of Alexander's Athletic Club in Canonsburg, said her gym is always packed the first of the year.

"We get to the point where you can hardly get a machine, but by March it is back to normal," she said. "We get a couple who can stay with the resolution, but most don't."

Mrs. Keller said most don't realize the commitment behind getting and staying in shape.

"They have great ideas and it sounds good, but losing weight takes time and you don't see the results right away," she said. "We live in a society that wants instant gratification and you just can't get that. Losing weight is not just working out ... it has to be a lifestyle change."

Those who stick with it, she said, are the ones she refers to as "gym-goers" who have found a place that works in their schedule.

"They've tried other things and they're just really unhappy with themselves, with their lives, and they know this is the last shot they have," she said. "They see that it takes a lot of work, but it's worth it."

In years past, Mrs. Keller has resolved to work out more, but this year, she said she plans to spend more time with her elderly mother who lives in Somerset.

In this same spirit of giving, as opposed to giving up, Joe Harkiewicz of Shaler said he has resolved in 2013 to spend more time with friends.

"Each year, I think about all the friends I want to reconnect with," he said. "I receive a Christmas card, a phone call is made, and there is talk of meeting for dinner, a bicycle ride or cocktails and I don't follow through. It's the same thing year after year."

Mr. Harkiewicz said he is 90 percent sure that he will be able to keep this resolution in 2013 and said his reasons for failing in the past were that he didn't follow through.

As for sharing his resolutions, Mr. Harkiewicz said he always keeps them to himself.

"It's my thing and in case I come up short, I don't want to hear about it," he said.

Publicly sharing resolutions is something that Mr. Scheier said depends on the person and added that some people change behaviors based on social support and pressure, while for others it's important to make the commitment to themselves.

"If the person is not ready to really commit personally, then making the public commitment more often than not does not hold much value," he said.

Tips to succeed

For those who do want to commit to keeping their resolutions in 2013, Mr. Scheier has advice.

• Make sure that it's something that you really want to change or accomplish. "It has to be a personal goal," he said.

• Keep it real. "You have to make the difficulty of the resolution consistent with what you are able to do," Mr. Scheier said. "That way your confidence in being able to do it is increased, which motivates follow-through and doesn't lead to discouragement."

• Re-prioritize goals to focus on what's important. "The person who smoked for 20 years should be aware that there's going to be some unpleasantness and it may make them grumpy and interfere with their work and other things," he said.

• Develop a behavioral strategy. "It's nice to have a goal, but what we really need are behavioral prescriptions to get there," Mr. Scheier said. "If you're going to walk for 30 minutes three times a week, or you're going to not have an extra glass of wine at dinner, you need to have a behavior strategy." Without commitment and behavioral strategy, Mr. Scheier said it's hard to follow through a resolution.

When it comes to resolutions, Mr. Scheier said he tries not to make them, but when he does, he makes sure they are easy to accomplish, such as walking 12 extra steps each day.

"Every year I think about things I should change and then I think about how disruptive they will be to my life and what I have to do and I think well, maybe next year," he said.

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Shannon Nass, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.


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