The Guardian has a timely article examining why New Year's resolutions fail:
Richard Wiseman, a psychologist at the University of Hertfordshire... and his team had asked 700 people about their strategies for achieving new year resolutions. Their goals ranged from losing weight or giving up smoking to gaining a qualification or starting a better relationship.
Of the 78% who failed, many had focused on the downside of not achieving the goals; they had suppressed their cravings, fantasised about being successful, and adopted a role model or relied on willpower alone.... On the other hand, people who kept their resolutions tended to have broken their goal into smaller steps and rewarded themselves when they achieved one of these. They also told their friends about their goals, focused on the benefits of success and kept a diary of their progress.
People who planned a series of smaller goals had an average success rate of 35%, while those who followed all five of the above strategies had a 50% chance of success, the study found.
"Many of the most successful techniques involve making a plan and helping yourself stick to it," Wiseman said.... Other strategies that helped people to achieve their goals included making only one resolution at a time and treating occasional lapses in the plan as just temporary setbacks.
Since I'm about 20 pounds lighter than I was this time last year (but 15 pounds from where I really want to be), I read this with particular interest. There's plenty of research that indicates that regimens involving self-denial, and require immediate sacrifices for long-term gains, are hard for people to keep to: this is why retirement accounts that automatically deduct money from your paycheck are more reliable than your own intention to put away some money every month for retirement. I think Wiseman's findings are consistent with that work.
Like a lot of people who've fought with their weight, I have a pretty complicated relationship with food. Some of the foods I overdo most easily are really simple, like Ritz Crackers (go figure). It's also something of a narcotic: I find if I eat more than a modest lunch, I get dumb. But unlike smoking, it's not a relationship you can ever end: I'm stuck with eating.
For me, the first critical discovery about dieting was that the miracle key to weight loss is... eat less food. It's really that simple. Not exercise, not Atkins (which worked for a while, but then didn't, and feels pretty ecologically unusustainable anyway), not some other diet; just a lot less food. And making that work, in turn, required paying a lot of attention to little things. I figured out that the time of day I'm most likely to have trouble with food is before dinner (and to a lesser degree after). I've learned what diversions work: investors in gum companies had a very good 2009 thanks to me, and I drink vast quantities of water and tea, mainly for the satiety effect. I also realized that eating certain ways creates problems: eating breakfast while standing over the kitchen sink may have worked when I was a grad student and only had two eggs and a moldy lemon in the fridge, but these days, it's a recipe for disaster. I've learned that when I have a bad day, you have to not get too discouraged, and just start over again the next day. Or the next year.