NEW YORK — 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.
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.
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.
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 myGoals.com, 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 myGoals.com 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.
The site is projecting that 18 percent of people responding to the poll will be focusing on their careers, down from 27 percent the previous year.
"Last year we saw this really shocking, dramatic surge in career-related goals," says Mr. Helmstetter. "[People] sounded worried. It was 'I need to get a job,' not 'I want to make a million dollars.' "
Beginning a new year by vowing to improve is a practice that's been around a long time. The ancient Romans used to offer resolutions to the god Janus - the patron of beginnings and endings - for whom January is named.
The only difference between a resolution and a goal, suggests Helmstetter, is the week of the year someone makes it.
But one of the website's users, Joe White, says he's turned off by the associations connected to the word "resolutions."
Mr. White, a graduate student from Struthers, Ohio, who has used myGoals.com to help him reach education and bodybuilding goals, says he sees too much emphasis in the media on quick fixes, as related to resolutions.
"I guess it's just the term resolutions I don't like very much. I'd rather just think of it as an extension from last year.... It's a new goal," he explains.
Dr. Norcross also believes that there is little difference in the minds of most people between goals and resolutions, especially when it comes to behavior.
He offers tips for meeting goals - make them realistic, state them positively, and monitor their progress. But he also disputes the idea that the failure rate for resolutions indicates they aren't effective.
He and his colleagues have found that people who make resolutions are more likely to succeed after six months than those with a similar desire to change who did not make a resolution - 46 percent vs. 4 percent of those who had no resolution.
"So it is true most New Year's resolutions do not succeed, at least the first time," he says. "But they are 10 times more likely to succeed than not doing anything, [than] just having the desire."
Those interested in year-round help with their self-improvement will have another option at the end of the month. Johnson & Johnson, a manufacturer of healthcare and hygiene products, is launching a website - www.reach accessresolutions.com - meant to help people work toward success in reaching their goals.
"Here's another reason people don't keep resolutions: They don't tell anyone," says Gail Blanke, a motivational speaker and author the company has recruited to discuss the new site.
"And," she adds, "they don't actually make it a declaration, which is another reason that Johnson & Johnson has this website, because what they're inviting people to do is go online and make a declaration ... make a commitment."
As for Falter-Barns, she agrees that it helps to have a partner when setting goals.
She jokes that it's not easy to see her husband, who accompanies her to the hearth at the inn somewhat reluctantly each year, achieve his goals with little effort. But she admits she enjoys having the company as she tries to pick authentic things in her life that she wants to make happen.
"I think some couples would probably kill each other doing this," she says with a laugh. "But doing it with someone else is great ... we cheer each other on."