Conquering the New Year’s Resolution

Blog Post | January 03, 2013 - 11:45 am
By Michelle Vigen, Research Analyst

Welcome to the New Year! 

On January 1 of each year, 40–50% of Americans make a New Year’s Resolution. The most common resolutions we find ourselves making include quitting smoking, losing weight, and exercising more. In other words, New Year’s Resolutions often reflect a desire to change a behavior.

Changing a behavior is difficult; changing habits or adding a new one is not easy. The good news is that making the right choices and preparing for success (see our tips below) can increase your chance of making a resolution stick. In a 2002 study by Dr. John Norcross, professor of psychology at the University of Scranton, researchers studied “resolvers” compared with “non-resolvers” who were pursuing a behavior change and found that 46% of the resolvers were still successful at the 6-month mark compared to 4% of the non-resolvers.

While 46% is impressive, most of us would prefer to have higher chances at success.

At ACEEE, the Behavior & Human Dimensions program’s research revolves around how to cost-effectively foster energy efficiency behavior change. In many cases, successful change is a question of how to smooth the path between intention and action. Whether your resolution is to reduce your energy use or get to the gym regularly this year, we have a few research-proven tips for you:

  • Breakdown your aspirations into small steps. In 2011, UrbanTrans–ANZ presented at the Behavior, Energy, and Climate Change (BECC) conference on their success in using very small steps to encourage people to exercise more (from exercising hardly ever). By using small and easy steps (for example, a 5-minute walk around the block once a day), program participants could build up a record of success and avoid the difficulties (or barriers) that come with attempting larger goals (or example, going to the gym for an hour three times a week). Pick just one or two goals and break it down into achievable steps.
  • Give yourself a break. Allow yourself some “free passes” so that a single lapse doesn’t derail your longer-term efforts. Research shows that successful resolutions do lapse, upwards of 71% of them, and often in January. The key is that these resolution-makers allow the lapse and recognize, “I shouldn’t have this ice cream today, so I’ll stop after one more spoonful,” rather than giving up and eating the whole carton. Recognize that change is a process and keep your eye on the prize!
  • Use tools to bolster your commitment. A New York Times article, “Be It Resolved,” summarizes the new tools that mobile phone applications offer individuals pursuing a New Year’s Resolution. is a website created by Yale economists that allows participants to make contracts that obligate them (even financially) to meeting their commitments. Resolution-makers can double their chances of succeeding by putting a little extra “skin in the game.” Find an “app” that helps you be more invested, whether by enlisting some monetary risk or social pressure.
  • Don’t be wishful, but be ready. Choose resolutions that you’ve been wanting to tackle for a while and know you are able and ready. Dr. Norcross’s work found that the greatest predictors of success were self-efficacy of change, or the belief that one can change, and readiness to change, or the resolve to act and move beyond contemplation of change. Note that simply a desire to change or having the skills to change is not a significant predictor of success. Identify changes that are in reach and you feel ready to tackle.
  • Make it easier for yourself. Dr. McKenzie-Mohr, an environmental psychologist, suggests identifying and lowering barriers to action to successfully change a behavior. For example, if you’re trying to avoid stopping at the fast food joints conveniently located on your way home in an effort to change your diet, make the decision to change your route and avoid temptation. If you want to avoid the vending machine snacks, leave cash and coins at home to increase the effort necessary to get a vending machine treat. Clear the way and make success as easy as possible for yourself.

This New Year’s, we hope that readers will consider some energy efficiency resolutions and work towards changing a habit or practice that can save energy. Some effective actions we recommend are turning off your power strip at work at the end of the day, washing clothes in cold water, and setting back your thermostat when you leave home during the day. Check out our new 10th edition of the Consumer Guide to Home Energy Savings for more helpful tips.

Leave a comment and tell us what your energy-saving New Year’s Resolutions are this year and what steps you will take to be successful!