As Christians around the world attend Ash Wednesday services today, many will also mark the 46-day period of Lent by resolving to give something up.
While it’s unknown how many Christians successfully make it to Easter without chocolate or wine or forgetting to floss, they probably have an edge up on those who make New Year’s resolutions, experts said.
“Everything’s working in your favor for Lent,” said Tim Pychyl, a psychology professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. “There are a few things that are happening: you’re part of a community, so you’re accountable, and you’re doing something that’s connected to your core values, so you feel some commitment, and it’s a fixed, shorter period of time.”
New Year’s resolutions are notorious for failing, as psychologists have documented: Just 8 percent are successful in achieving their goal, according to research from the University of Scranton. But 64 percent are successful for that first month.
“A New Year’s commitment for life is really overwhelming,” Pychyl said.
John Norcross, author of "Changeology" and a distinguished professor of psychology at the University of Scranton, has been studying self change for 30 years.
“Whether you’re talking about New Year’s or the Great American Smokeout or a 40-day weight loss, the process of change is uncannily similar,” he said. The biggest reason most people fail? “The average person has been blamed for failing to change, but rarely trained to change,” he said.
“If you’re saying, Oops, it’s Lent, let me begin something -- that’s destined to fail.”
Instead, research has pinpointed some behaviors that can set the stage for success. First, Norcross said, think about the behavior you want to change and plan the healthy opposite before you begin. Make it as specific and concrete as possible, said Pychyl, who wrote "Solving the Procrastination Puzzle: A Concise Guide to Strategies for Positive Change." Establish new habits rather than simply getting rid of the old.
“So if your goal is to lose weight, tell yourself, ‘I will set myself a smaller plate at dinner, and I will only have one helping,’” he said.
Track your progress. Set mini-goals along the way. Also, expect to slip up.
“One of our most surprising findings was that those who were successful and unsuccessful slipped at identical rates in the first couple of weeks,” Norcross said. “These were not perfect angels who were succeeding. The difference is, they’ve learned to respond to the slip differently. The successful people realized that one slip need not become a fall. It’s time to call in social support and get right back to it.”
Other research has shown that when willpower is flagging, people are able to keep up their resolve if they do some value affirmation.
“And the thing with Lent, it’s connected to our values,” Tim said. “It’s second nature to do that value affirmation, and then you’re often able to muster up the rest of your willpower to do it.”