BLANK SLATE: Resolutions are limited only by the imagination, but there are patterns to the decision-making process that can help you achieve success. Picture: THINKSTOCK
BLANK SLATE: Resolutions are limited only by the imagination, but there are patterns to the decision-making process that can help you achieve success. Picture: THINKSTOCK

THERE are two kinds of people in this world: those who make New Year resolutions, and those who don’t. If you are among the former, you might also be among the 90% who find their resolutions in tatters come the end of January.

Don’t let that statistic keep you from trying. Psychologists say learning about patterns in the decision-making process can make a difference to keeping your resolutions on track beyond January 31.

For starters, you could try thinking of a resolution in a foreign language. (If you don’t speak a foreign language, then resolve to learn one this year. It is shown in research to be an excellent way to keep dementia at bay.)

US researchers at the University of Chicago say a foreign language provides "a distancing mechanism that moves people from the immediate intuitive system to a more deliberate mode of thinking". People are more likely to take favourable risks if they think in a foreign language, the study, published in the journal Psychological Science in April 2012, shows.

"We know from previous research that because people are naturally loss-averse, they often forgo attractive opportunities," says psychology professor Dr Boaz Keysar, in a Chicago University release.

"Our new findings demonstrate that such aversion to losses is much reduced when people make decisions in their non-native language," he says

No matter the language in which you devise your resolutions, a key is not to make too many at once. That can set you up for a dose of performance anxiety when you need it least, and eventual failure.

The experts say it is preferable to set few, but very specific goals, with an emphasis on achievability. That’s not the same thing as saying you should set easy goals, but while there’s a lot to be said for aiming high, you need to be realistic.

If not, you’ll just end up a number in the 90% whose resolutions bite the dust.

You also need to get into the habit of keeping up a positive internal dialogue with yourself, reminding yourself of you resolution, why you made it, and that you have what it takes to make it work.

Telling few significant others about your resolution directions this year will also boost your chances of success, say psychologists.

So, once you have the right support structure in place, the experts give some suggestions on helpful resolutions for health in body and mind, with difficulty levels ranging from ridiculously easy to sublimely challenging:

1. Get out of debt

If money was a major source of stress for you in 2012, you are not alone, and top of your resolution list should be to resolve to change that in 2013. Johannesburg financial consultant Bryan Hirsch says worries over money matters will always create the most stress in your life. If you are financially disorganised — in other words, if you are without an annual budget — you can rarely have any real peace of mind, he says.

He suggests as a first step in your resolve to be debt-free this year to list all your monthly expenses and multiple by 12. Then estimate all you annual costs including an amount for education fees, holidays and potential repairs. Now compare this annual expense budget to your annual take-home pay.

"If there is a surplus, great. If not, start to see where you can cut down. It’s a good way to start 2013."

2. Protect your colon

If you are turning 50 this year, the American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy recommends that you add colorectal cancer screening to you list of New Year’s list of resolutions — even if you feel fine, and have no problems or symptoms. If you are younger than 50, and have a family history of the disease, or other risk factors, screening should be on your resolution list, the society says.

That’s because colorectal cancer, also referred to as colon cancer, is one of the most preventable cancers. Most cases arise from precancerous growths in the colon called polyps, that can be found during a screening examination, and removed immediately before they turn cancerous.

In South Africa, colon cancer ranks in the top five most common cancers, with one in 97 men and one in 162 women at risk of developing the dread disease, according Prof Jonathan Blackburn, of the University of Cape Town Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine.

On the Cancer Association of South Africa’s website (www.cansa.org.za), Prof Blackburn says the survival rate for patients with colorectal cancer is greater than 90% when tumours are detected at a localised early stage. That rate drops dramatically to 40%-65% after the cancer has spread regionally, and to 10% after distant metastases of the original tumour.

"Unfortunately, only 39% of colorectal cancers are in fact diagnosed at an early stage, mainly due to low rates of screening," Prof Blackburn says.

3. Drive less, lose more

Weight loss is one of the most popular New Year resolutions, and one most likely to fail. US computer scientists say you can up your odds of your resolution succeeding simply by driving less.

The less driving you do, the more physically active you are likely to be. And you will be doing your environment a favour as well by reducing petrol consumption, as it tends to rise with the obesity epidemic, say the researchers from the University of Illinois computer science department.

"Obesity isn’t one-dimensional. (It) isn’t just a medical issue, but a societal one," says study senior author Dr Sheldon Jacobson, director of the simulation and optimisation laboratory at Illinois University, in a HealthDay News report. "Reducing travel is a way to tackle the obesity epidemic and save fuel."

Another US expert agrees it’s a positive step, regardless of why you are taking it.

"If you’re making healthy changes like driving less — whether it’s to lose weight, or because you want to go green and save fuel — your body doesn’t care why you’re doing it; you’ll still get the benefits," Samantha Heller, clinical nutrition co-ordinator at the Centre for Cancer Care at Griffin Hospital in Derby, Connecticutt, says in the HealthDay News report.

4. Stop puffing

Quitting smoking is another evergreen New Year’s resolution — and one of the easiest to stub out, come end of January, if not before. One reason is the weight gain that often accompanies valiant attempts to stop lighting up.

Research shows that more than 80% of people who stop smoking soon gain an average of between 2kg and 4kg. That weight gain is relatively modest, and easily offset by the health benefits of not smoking. However, about 25% of former puffers gain much more. Not surprisingly, that makes many people, but particularly women, reluctant to stop smoking.

Now new US researchers say taking a pill called naltrexone could help women keep their weight stable after they stop smoking. The pill does not appear to help men who want to quit, researchers from the University of Chicago say in the December issue of Biological Psychiatry.

"Weight gain is a crucial issue for people, especially women who have societal pressure and can be more discontented with their bodies," says Dr Andrea King, a professor of psychiatry and behavioural neuroscience at the university, and lead author of the current study, in another HealthDay News report.

"Even if naltrexone doesn’t help quit rates, if we could break down that barrier, it could have an impact," Dr King says.

Naltrexone is used to treat addiction, and is not among first-line treatments for stopping smoking. Those include the antidepressant bupropion (Zyban), the drug varenicline (Chantix), and the use of nicotine patches.

When these treatments don’t work, Dr King says Naltrexone with a nicotine patch and counselling could be an option.

5. Go low-tech and get high on nature

This is not about becoming a Luddite, or demonising the benefits of a hi-tech lifestyle. It’s just that as with other good things in life, too much can be bad, and technology is no exception.

US psychologists say hiking in nature could make people more creative by putting some distance between them and the distractions of technology. The study points to "a truth about getting outdoors and into the wild", says lead author, Dr Ruth Ann Atchley, chairwoman of psychology at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, in a report in the journal PLoS (Public Library of Science) One in December 2012.

"There’s a restorative effect of nature that helps us better and more effectively engage in high-order thinking," Dr Atchley says in a HealthDay News report.

"We do think that nature leads to greater levels of creativity."

Researchers know that nature can affect the mind by relaxing and engaging it, acting as a kind of "positive drug", she says.

Dr Dean Keith Simonton, professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, says another factor may be at play: novelty.

"Creativity is frequency enhanced when we are obliged to break out of our habitual daily routine, whatever it might be," Dr Simonton says in the HealthDay News report.

6. Learn something new everyday

A growing body of scientific research points to the benefits of lifelong learning, which include keep dementia at bay.

You may be lucky enough to have a job that keeps you stimulated mentally, but Harvard Medical School says pursuing a hobby or learning a new skill can function the same way. In Health Beat, a Harvard Medical School publication, their suggestions include: read, join a book group, play chess or bridge, write your life story, do crossword or jigsaw puzzles, take a class, pursue music or art, or design a new garden layout. At work, you can propose or volunteer for a project that involves a skill you don’t usually use.

The Harvard researchers also say the more senses you use in learning something, the more of your brain will be involved in retaining the memory. They recommend that you "challenge all your senses as you venture into the unfamiliar". For example: try to guess the ingredients as you smell and taste a new dish in a restaurant. Try sculpting or ceramics, and be aware of the feel and smell of the materials you will be using.

7. Get organised

This is another perennial on many New Year’s resolution lists, and another that usually flounders on the end-of-January rocks.

If you harbour any doubt about the benefits of being organised, the experts are poised to dispel them. So take a leaf out of the book of US certified professional organiser, productivity consultant, success coach, business strategist, speaker and author Lisa Montana, who is quoted as saying: "One of the best benefits of being organised is when life throws you a curve ball, you can hit it and get on base. You can’t avoid the curve ball, but being organised helps you deal with it better by having systems in place to fall back on."

On the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Centre’s website, another professional organiser, Janice Simon, gives insight into the basic principles of getting organised:

• Don’t be tempted to multitask. Multitasking reduces productivity by 20%-40%, she says. Studies have shown that you reduce your cognitive abilities and IQ points every time you try to do two things at once. Instead, she recommends that you think "unitasking" — the act of doing tasks one at a time. You will feel less stressed and accomplish more, and improve your overall productivity.

• Learn to say no. Remember that "no is a complete sentence". You have to learn how not to overload yourself and, more importantly, your brain, she says. This means your activities and tasks need to be prioritised and sometimes even taken off your agenda all together.

• Don’t hoard. "At some point, things emotionally depreciate, and you need to move on."

• When organising a room, use sorting boxes labelled "keep" , "toss", "charity" and "other rooms". Stay in the room you’re working on; take all the items that belong to other rooms back after you finish what you’re doing. "Otherwise, you will wander from room to room, doing bits and pieces here and there and not finish what you were doing."