It's a meaningless and arbitrary start-over point to some, a golden opportunity to others. It's the New Year's resolution, and it often goes something like this:
"I'm going to stop interrupting my husband," says the woman in a Betty Boop sweatshirt standing in line at "Linens 'N Things" to return a $9.99 chop-mince-slice-dicer.
The man holding her arm with one hand and an armload of discounted fruit snacks in the other says, "She says that every year, and it hasn't ..."
"... I said it and I meant it. Don't undercut me in public, George."
And so it goes. The third millennium's third chance to wipe the slate clean is upon us. From sea to shining sea, people are giving up smoking, drinking, salt, sugar, fat, being mean - and interrupting spouses - just as they did last year and, often, the year before that.
"My resolution is to take off the same 10 pounds that I didn't take off last year or any other year going back 27 years," says Marcia Seligson, a musical theater producer. "I make the same promise to myself every year and it usually lasts until about Jan. 6."
If that is the case for most - and multiple interviews seem to show that it is - experts concur that the human species, after just a few short millennia on Earth, is finally wising up. Looking back at their own lifetimes of self-promises and well-meaning attempts to shape up and change long-entrenched behaviors overnight on Dec. 31, more and more are refusing to bite off more than they can eschew.
"People really want to make changes in their lives but don't recognize that they are setting up unrealizable expectations with quick resolutions," says psychotherapist Gloria Richfield, coauthor of a book on keeping spousal romance. "More and more people are recognizing that serious change isn't going to happen with simple pronouncements. Real change requires quiet contemplation, long-term intention and time."
For many, say the same experts, that unfortunately means dropping the resolutions altogether rather than digging in for the long haul.
"I stopped doing them because they were too easy to break, and then I'd be all down on myself by mid-January," says real estate agent Lacy McMillen of Sherman Oaks, Calif. "Now I make more modest goals and try to achieve them over the course of the year."
Going for smaller goals and gathering momentum by meeting them is, in fact, one of the techniques increasingly being pushed by therapists and self-help experts.
Chris Downie, founder of SparkPeople, a Cincinnati-based company that helps clients set and achieve goals, stresses four main areas of a realistic plan to make resolutions succeed:
1. Be accountable to someone else who will encourage you and hold you to account when necessary.
2. Break down goals into medium- and short-term ones. (Instead of "lose 50 lbs." or "quit smoking" change to "lose X lbs. per week for six weeks" or "smoke X fewer cigarettes per week until you hit zero.")
3. Achieve positive momentum and self-confidence by meeting smaller goals first - enabling you to tackle harder goals later.
4. Reward yourself by celebrating results with others, and use the occasion to reinforce the accomplishment and set new goals.
"We try to get clients to set up a long-term system in their life that includes multiple goals, not just one," says Downie. "We want them to be realistic and think about their goal on a daily basis."
Because of the long-term ethos, the older methods of quick-fix, carrot-and-stick approaches are falling out of favor. Both involve a kind of reinforcement - one a reward for achievement, the other a punishment for failure.
"Punishment and rewards are two sides of the same coin, and that coin does not buy much," says Bill Stierle, a counselor in Santa Monica, Calif., who advises clients - from individuals to corporations to the government - on how to induce positive change.
But if older Americans may have learned such lessons the hard way over the long haul, younger ones, unfazed by "resolutional letdown," take on ambitious goals.
For 11-year-old Winnie Cohen, reading holiday cookbooks at a discount table in Borders Bookstore, candy is out: "No more sugar as of midnight this Tuesday."
Perusing "Fitness" magazine, Kevin Atkin says, "I'm going for bigger pecs this year."
"Marshmallows ... I'm giving up marshmallows so I can lose this," says 17-year old Mike Stanley, pinching a roll of fat around his waist.