Despite our most sincere efforts, many of us will fail to keep our renewed promises of losing weight, quitting smoking, saving money or being nicer to the in-laws during the coming year.
As many as 90 percent of attempts at change fail, yet New Year's resolvers are undeterred. In a 2002 report in the journal American Psychologist, University of Toronto researcher Janet Polivy and a colleague came up with a name for this "cycle of failure and renewed effort": the False Hope syndrome.
The False Hope syndrome may be particularly common among those who resolve to lose weight, Polivy said. And the chief cause is a combination of unrealistic goals and a misunderstanding of our own behavior. [Related: 11 Surprising Things That Can Make Us Gain Weight ]
Most experts agree that one of the best ways to truly change a behavior — and not fall prey to False Hope — is to, well, get out of your head.
Understanding your behavior: You are what you write
Instead of resolving to diet to lose weight, said Dr. Christopher Mosunic, director of the Weight Loss and Diabetes Center at Greenwich Hospital in Connecticut, "keeping a food journal is a much more realistic goal." Keeping a journal would work well for all resolutions, he added. He said he has been keeping a journal for a decade.
"We've known this for years, and it’s a cornerstone of behavioral weight loss psychology," Mosunic told MyHealthNewsDaily. "When we write things down, we filter out the exaggerations in our heads."
For example, dieters may chastise themselves for eating a few Oreos and feel sad about it. But this only increases their likelihood of emotional overeating. Jotting down a few notes about the sweet snack, however, allows you to be more realistic. By writing, "A couple of cookies isn’t so bad," you can prevent feelings of failure and the desire to give up, Mosunic said.
Caitlin Mason, an exercise and health researcher at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, said a food journal also reinforces what you’re doing right.
"It can help you see the positive changes you've made," Mason said, "and help you identify what triggers might be holding you back from your goals."
Handwritten and online journals are equally effective for both sexes, according to Mosunic. He recommended tools such as Myfatsecret.com and Livestrong-myplate.com for the tech-inclined. Smartphone apps such as Lose It! also can help dieters track weight-loss goals.
There are no set guidelines on how long a journal should be kept. "For the rest of your life," Mosunic joked.
Unrealistic goals: The devil is in the details
Unrealistic New Year's promises are doomed from the start — and many resolutions fall into this category. Polivy's report noted that people often set such extreme weight-loss goals — in terms of either their weight change or the amount of time they give themselves — that the goals are nearly impossible to achieve, let alone maintain.
Imprecise goals present other problems.
"The best resolutions are very specific," Mason said, "A resolution to 'lose weight' almost never works because it's too vague."
People hoping to decrease their waist size are better off promising small, specific changes, such as replacing a can of soda with a bottle of water at lunch, or getting in a 20-minute walk on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, Mason said. Although you may not see dramatic results initially, small, healthy changes to your daily routine make maintaining the resolution much more feasible.
"Small changes are sustainable, and in the end they add up to bigger effects," Mason said.
According to Polivy's report, the way dieters frame goals also may influence the likelihood of achieving them. Most New Year's resolvers make promises of what they want to give up or stop doing, but it's much more effective to be positive.
"Saying what you can do, as in eating more fruit, is much more encouraging than deciding to avoid chocolate," Mason told MyHealthNewsDaily.
Ultimately, setting realistic goals and tracking your progress is your best chance for transforming your New Year's promise into a permanent lifestyle change and maintaining that warm-and-fuzzy feeling that comes with resolving to be better, long after the bubbly is gone.
Live Science newsletter
Stay up to date on the latest science news by signing up for our Essentials newsletter.