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UAlbany Researcher: Practice Key to Sustaining New Year's Resolutions

Q&A with Associate Professor of Psychology and Self-Control Expert Mark Muraven

Each year, losing weight, quitting smoking and exercising regularly are among the top resolutions in the U.S., according to Prof. Muraven.

ALBANY, N.Y (December 28, 2011) -- With another new year fast approaching, millions of Americans will resolve to achieve one or more personal goals or break an old habit. University at Albany Associate Professor of Psychology Mark Muraven is an expert on self-control, addiction, motivation and emotion. He conducts research on the roles of self-control in smoking cessation, and the practice of sustaining or achieving self-improvement.

Q. What are some of the most popular New Year’s resolutions?

A: Each year, losing weight, quitting smoking and exercising regularly rank as the top three New Year goals, accounting for 75 percent of all resolutions.

Q. Which resolutions are the most likely to succeed?

A: Most resolutions are unlikely to last a significant length of time, with about 20 percent lasting two years. The drop off begins almost immediately; about 25 percent of resolutions are abandoned within a week and about 50 percent last at least six months.

Q. How can we increase our chances of sticking to our resolutions?

A: While there is of course no easy answer, a significant amount of research is being conducted on how to improve self-control. My own research suggests that people treat self-control as a limited resource that gets depleted with use; after exerting self-control over one behavior, subsequent attempts are more likely to fail. We can try to combat this by being judicious in when we exert self-control, try not to take on too much at once, and understand and plan for demands (e.g., recognize that after visiting our in-laws and biting our tongue the entire time, we may be at an increased risk for self-control failure). Rest, a positive attitude, and eating healthy may help overcome this state of depletion.

UAlbany Associate Professor of Psychology Mark Muraven
UAlbany Associate Professor of Psychology Mark Muraven

More recent research from my lab suggests that it may be possible to improve self-control through practice. People who practiced small acts of self-control were more successful at big tasks requiring self-control. For example, people who cut back on sweets for two weeks before quitting smoking remained abstinent longer than those who practiced tasks that did not require self-control. Hence, self-control may be like a muscle that we can build.

Q. What are the benefits and downfalls to making resolutions?

A: The down side includes feelings of failure, continued bad habits and potential damage to our health. For example, research has shown that weight cycling (losing and then gaining weight) makes it harder to lose weight in the long run and may have a more negative impact on one's health than maintaining a consistent weight.

At the same time, people often don’t internalize feelings of failure and will continue trying, which helps people learn what works and what doesn’t. It also may improve their self-control by giving them a chance to practice. And sometimes, they even succeed.

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