About half of all American adults (48%, according to a Marist poll taken in December) say they are at least somewhat likely to make a New Year's resolution this year. Their top vows: to lose weight (19%), quit smoking (12%) and exercise more (10%). Sound familiar?
The Marist poll also found that while 65% of people who made a resolution in 2008 kept their promise for at least part of the year, 35% never even made it out of the gate. Indeed, when you wake bleary-eyed on the first day of a new year or decade resolutions to "cut back" and "moderate" seem both an excellent idea and an impossibly hazy dream.
But consider this: if hard-core addicts can break bad habits some by moderating, not just quitting there's still hope for you. Whether your goal for 2010 is to get fit or tame your drinking, experts say there's a lot you can learn from people who have successfully moderated their habits to help keep you off the resolution merry-go-round.
1. Don't Kid Yourself
"The most important thing is to be honest with yourself," says Howard Josepher, a former heroin addict and president of Exponents Inc., an organization that provides support and educational services to people with substance-misuse issues. "You need to know the difference between enjoying yourself and self-medicating. It's not that self-medicating is necessarily bad but you should give yourself parameters. If you are adhering to them, O.K. If not, you need to check yourself."
Successful moderators decide in advance how much is too much and stick to their limit, no matter what. Have a cookie a day if that's what you've deemed acceptable. But if you cheat by having "just one more," know that you are only cheating yourself and exacerbating the problem, experts say. The point is to learn how to hold yourself accountable.
For those who are concerned in particular about drinking, a free, research-based online tool called Drinker's Checkup can help you determine whether you are drinking at unhealthy levels, and what to do if you are.
2. Quit Cold Turkey Temporarily
"Theoretically, there are very good reasons to take a break from a behavior, totally," says Reid Hester, director of research at Behavior Therapy Associates, explaining that an initial period of complete abstinence can make it easier for people to moderate behavior by eliminating the habitual, automatic aspect of the unwanted activity.
Take a cue from the self-help group Moderation Management (MM), which advises problem drinkers to abstain completely for a month before attempting moderate drinking. If you can't achieve a month of abstinence, the thinking goes, successful moderation is unlikely.
The best way to stay on course is frequent self-monitoring; use as many behavior-modification tools, support groups and programs as you can. In October, Hester and colleagues published a randomized controlled trial in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment comparing heavy drinkers who used MM's website to help them quit with those who used the MM site plus another online tool that teaches behavior-control tactics and helps chart drinking. While both groups significantly reduced their drinking and alcohol-related problems, the group that used the additional tool had more days abstinent and drank less when they drank.
3. Do What the Dalai Lama Would Do
Alan Marlatt, director of the Addictive Behaviors Research Center at the University of Washington, studies "mindfulness-based relapse prevention," which uses meditation and other ideas from Buddhist teachings to help people break bad habits.
"Between stimulus and response, there's a space, and in that space is our power to choose our response, and in our response lies our growth and freedom," says Marlatt, quoting author and Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl. Marlatt says, "Mindfulness gets you into that space."
Being mindful may involve traditional meditation, in which you sit quietly and observe your thoughts and breathing without judgment. But here, it is also used to focus awareness on thoughts and feelings that lead to unwanted behavior. Simply recognizing the triggers to relapse can help you choose not to give into them. "When there's a fork in the road, craving is pulling you one way. Well, what's the other way? You have to look down the other road and see where it takes you. Then you have a choice, instead of being on autopilot," says Marlatt.
One tactic he recommends for resisting those cravings is called "urge-surfing." It involves being mindful of the fact that craving is like a wave it rises to a peak, then falls. This happens whether you yield to the urge or not, though most people erroneously think their craving will escalate endlessly unless they give in. In fact, succumbing to cravings only reinforces them resisting, in contrast, reinforces resistance. Marlatt advises watching your urge, noting its peak and "surfing" it, rather than allowing it to wipe you out.
Another trick is to recognize that willpower is like a muscle it gets stronger with appropriate use but ultimately weakens if overloaded. That's why Hester recommends setting short-term goals that are "moderately difficult, realistic, concrete and measurable." As with weight-lifting, starting at a level that is challenging but not overwhelming can provide a sense of achievement and success which can give you the drive to take on bigger challenges.
4. Don't Try to Scare Yourself Straight
Research shows that in the long term, the pleasure of victory is a better incentive than the agony of defeat. "Punishment is a poor motivator," says Hester. "It sets people up for failure. If all you do is punish yourself for failure, you won't stay motivated to change for very long."
Instead, reward yourself for sticking to your limits and focus on the benefits of changing. For instance, if your goal is to drink less or lose weight, treat yourself to something you want a new book or DVD, say each time you successfully resist a tempting dessert or achieve a goal, like a month of abstinence. Success tends to beget greater success. If you do slip back into old patterns, avoid recriminations. "Don't say, 'I can't do it,' " says Marlatt. "People make mistakes. If you keep working at it, you will get better over time. That's what the research shows."
For some people, trying to moderate bad habits is not achievable or takes more effort than abstaining altogether as the philosopher St. Augustine put it, "Complete abstinence is easier than perfect moderation." Recognizing this by trying and failing can also be a critical step toward behavior change.
5. Get Better Friends
Consciously and unconsciously, people tend to imitate those around them. That's why the latest research shows that things like happiness, smoking cessation and obesity can spread like a contagion through social networks. So surround yourself with friends who can also be role models. "Make sure that people you hang out with are people who look and act the way you would like to. Social imitation is the easiest form not only of flattery but of self-improvement," says Stanton Peele, author of Seven Tools to Beat Addiction.
Social support is critical to changing all kinds of behavior. Good friends can not only help you through slip-ups but also help keep your New Year's resolutions from taking over your life. Rather than obsessing about what you shouldn't be doing, think about things you should, experts say. The distraction will help you curb bad habits. "Focus on your higher goals and positive activities, things that both sustain you and fill your life," says Peele. If you regularly engage in meaningful activities that give you pleasure whether it's visiting friends, picking up a hobby, taking a class or doing volunteer work (one of the most overlooked sources of personal joy and meaning is helping others) you'll simply have less time to crave or engage in the behavior that you want to reduce.