This New Year's, the Bay Area is resolving to get healthy and save money. Yet despite our best intentions, within a few months most of us will be back on the couch eating soft serve from the new ice-cream maker we blew $100 on.

But all hope is not lost.

Scientific studies of New Year's resolutions -- yes, actually done by psychologists -- indicate that some people can make lasting changes if they know what they're doing.

"Sadly, the vast majority of people do not have an action plan or a healthy alternative ready to go on Jan. 1," says John Norcross, a psychology professor at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania, who wrote the book on resolutions: "Changeology," released last week.

"This is a wonderful time if people are prepared," he says.

Surveys indicate about 40 to 50 percent of us made New Year's resolutions this week, and many have eagerly told every one of our Facebook friends and holiday party guests all about it.

That's a good thing. The social pressure creates accountability because you don't want to report back about a failure. Other advice for positive change, from a panel of experts:

  • Make small, achievable goals and track your progress regularly. Don't just resolve to lose weight; try to drop a pound per week and weigh in daily.

  • Replace whatever you're trying to get rid of with something that fills the void instead of going cold turkey. Don't just cut out coffee, caffeine junkies; try switching to tea first.


    Advertisement

  • Stick with it. We all fall victim to temptation; the difference between successful resolvers and failed ones is the ability to bounce back from relapses.

    Money

    Continuing a trend, more people -- about one-fourth of all resolvers -- are striving to save money and get a job this year, a particular concern as the nation prepared to plunge over the fiscal cliff.

    Now's a good time to step back and keep it simple, says Esther Szabo, a principal at KK Wealth Advisors in Los Altos. She advises writing down your top three financial concerns this New Year's -- debt, health care costs and car insurance, for instance -- and focusing on those.

    "We cannot control Congress or the president or the European Central Bank or thousands of other things that make the market shift around, but we can control what we can do for our own financial house," Szabo said.

    Health

    The most common resolution is to get fit, with about 40 percent of people trying to increase exercise, eat more healthful or lose weight.

    John Heringer, manager of Fast Action Training in San Jose, has seen plenty of them over the years. He says people who succeed at weight loss focus on the positive aspects of a more healthful lifestyle to ward off relapses; give up one thing -- soda or sweets, for instance -- at a time; and surround themselves with supportive people who help them stay fit.

    Heringer says a reasonable goal is to lose 1 percent of your body weight each week.

    "Saying you're going to lose 20 pounds in a month because they saw someone on 'The Biggest Loser' lose 50 pounds in a month is not realistic," Heringer said. "Most of those people will gain it back."

    Work

    A lot of people are asking San Jose-based career and life coach Brenda Griffith whether they should stay at a current job or flee. She recommends a complete evaluation of what you want from your job, and to go from there.

    "People go to work for different reasons," Griffith said. "If it's just for the money, they can do that, and focus on life outside of work. If they want to contribute to the world in a better way, then maybe they have to explore whether their current job can do that."

    Family

    Want a better family life after this New Year's? Research shows families should ideally spend at least 25 minutes together, five times a week, says Denise Pope, a senior lecturer at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education and an expert on family relationships.

    But studies also suggest kids need at least nine hours of sleep a night, unstructured play time and interaction with friends, so writing a schedule and posting it on the fridge can do wonders, she said.

    "Don't back down," says Pope, co-founder of the research-based nonprofit Challenge Success. "Kids are going to say they have to study or go out and do blah, blah, blah, but you have to really establish the rules around that. You have to stick to it."

    Contact Mike Rosenberg at 408-920-5705. Follow him at Twitter.com/RosenbergMerc.

    New Year's resolutions
    Three steps for success:
    Prepare: Make realistic, attainable goals; develop a specific action plan; establish confidence in your goals; publicly proclaim your resolutions.
    Beginning: Track your progress regularly; reward your successes; arrange your environment to help with your goals; use slips to strengthen your resolve; avoid self-blame during times of weakness.
    Long term: Cultivate social support; think of your goal as a marathon instead of a sprint; create a plan to deal with slips; remember that it takes three months for a change to become routine.
    Source: University of Scranton psychology professor John Norcross' research