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Where have all the resolutions gone?

By Kim CampbellStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 31, 2003


Each year at the beginning of January, Suzanne Falter-Barns and her husband visit an inn in New England, where they spend a day in front of a fire thinking about what they'd like to accomplish in the coming year.

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They've learned from experience that this process is successful for them - they usually achieve the goals they choose. But they don't call them New Year's resolutions.

" 'Resolutions' sounds painful. It's like I have to resolve something heavy. I don't want to do that, I want to make a goal. A goal is free-spirited and fun and exciting," says the self-help author, explaining that to her, losing 20 pounds is a resolution, but finally writing that book you've always wanted to write is a goal.

Whether terminology is to blame or not, fewer Americans are making New Year's resolutions these days. Maybe because experience has shown that hastily conceived resolutions are quickly broken. Instead, more people report that self-improvement has become an ongoing project - throughout the year they're thinking about the goal they want to achieve, whether it's learning Japanese or becoming a better person.

What's behind the changes?

Contributing to this evolution of resolutions - making them year-round declarations - may be the avalanche of books, magazines, and counselors that focus on helping people improve their lives.

"The thing that's made the shift from resolutions to goals has a lot to do with personal coaching and life coaching," suggests Ms. Falter-Barnes, author of the recently published "Living Your Joy." "You know, all these people who have hung out a shingle and said, 'I'm a coach,' have given new license to people to reinvent their lives."

About 40 to 45 percent of the adult population makes resolutions each year, down from 50 to 55 percent two decades ago, according to John Norcross, a psychology professor at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania who has been studying resolution habits for almost 20 years.

But the decline is not an indication that the desire for self-improvement is waning, he argues.

"Other times of the year, people are routinely making other commitments to change behavior.... If you ask people, 'Have you tried to change a specific behavior this year?' well over 90 percent will say yes," he notes.

That's evident in Manhattan, where in recent on-the-street interviews, everyone from Salvation Army bell ringers to FedEx workers commented that they are less likely to make New Year's resolutions, but that they are constantly trying to improve.

"I make resolutions all year long; I don't wait until New Year's," says one typical holiday shopper.

Start with a plan of action

Still, change often requires a plan, something experts say too few people have when resolving to lose weight or stop smoking. For more motivation, many turn to tools like the Web for help. Three-year-old, for example, offers premade plans for common goals such as watching less TV and learning to play the piano. It also allows people to customize their own plans.

An advantage of using a website such as this is keeping goals organized and permanently recorded. The service, which charges a fee, will also send daily or weekly e-mail reminders to keep people on track.

The site's traffic almost doubles in the weeks leading up to New Year's, says CEO Greg Helmstetter. This year, polling by suggests that people are feeling less compelled to focus on their careers than in recent years. Rather, they are returning to goals relating to family and getting organized.