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Broke your New Year's resolution already? Don't stress

Hopeful New Year's resolutions abounded at byüti salon in downtown Sacramento recently. Among the clients and stylists busily performing hair tints and facials were all variety of resolvers.

The pragmatists: "I want to run at least one 5K this year." The dreamers: "I want better work-life balance." The over-ambitious: "I'm going to drink more water, control my diabetes and be a nicer person."

And then there were the conscientious objectors: "Resolutions are made to be broken."

It's that last thought that most are sure to follow.

We start each new year with the best of intentions. But most of us probably have already gone back to lazing about and eating doughnuts for breakfast, with our 5K-running, balanced, quenched, nicer selves awaiting 2013.

"Usually, we get a lot of new faces in here the first few weeks of January," said Michael Mendoza, a personal trainer at the Capital Athletic Club downtown. "And the majority of them are probably gone by Valentine's Day."

Psychologists aren't surprised.

"People are pretty bad at following through with what they say they want," said E.J. Masicampo, a professor of psychology at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Yet our collective record could be so much better. Through scientific experiments, psychologists have found simple secrets to completing goals. The only trouble is that so few people know about them. We keep aspiring and then disappointing ourselves, year after year.

Take Anthony Walker, boyfriend of a byüti stylist, Amanda Lee. She's the conscientious objector who said resolutions are made to be broken. He, on the other hand, has posted a list of resolutions on his refrigerator. They include reducing his personal debt, spending more time with family, moderating his drinking, sharpening his eating habits and limiting frivolous spending. Plus two secret resolutions that "I want to see if I can just do on my own," he said.

Walker, 28, said he's made a money-management resolution – and broken it – almost every year. But this year, after getting a job as program director at a Sacramento Jenny Craig weight-loss center, he said: "It's time to start growing up and doing things the right way."

Psychologists looking at Walker's list would probably throw a grain of salt into his optimistic New Year's cocktail. They'd advise him to simplify. With all the people and tasks competing for our daily energy, habits die hard, so tackle one at a time.

Scientists could give Walker simple instructions, based on research, to boost his chances of success. First , they'd say: Break the big goals down into small, specific actions.

"We set goals that are unachievable," and then we miss the mark, feel bad and fail," said Sheri Pruitt, director of behavioral science integration at Kaiser Permanente's Roseville Medical Center.

"It's not about willpower. You have to have a strategy," Pruitt said.

Terry Wilderman, 36, has had the same goal – losing about 40 pounds – for the past few years. Like many Americans, the father of four boys struggles to find the time.

"Hopefully, I'll follow though this time," the Sacramento firefighter/paramedic said during a Monday workout at the Capital Athletic Club.

Beth Olhasso, a 28-year-old gym regular, has vowed to take more classes at the club.

"You have to sweat out all the champagne," she said Monday, cranking out an hour on the elliptical machine. She said classes are a good way to meet people and to diversify her routine.

Cory Vaughn can't be lumped in with the majority of Americans vowing to improve their fitness. The double-A baseball player, back in his hometown for the off-season, has very specific fitness goals.

"Just trying to get more explosive and flexible," said Vaughn, 22, a Jesuit High School graduate. To achieve that, he and his workout mates devote more time with quick- movement exercises.

Experts say the usual resolutions – "I'm going to lose weight" or "I want to start eating healthier" – are too vague and lofty to be attainable.

An achievable goal, Pruitt said, would be: "For the next two weeks, I'm going to walk 30 minutes a day."

Better yet, break it down even further, Masicampo said, by giving your goal a time and place, like, "When I go out to eat, I'll order a salad."

Pruitt distilled the psychological principles into an acronym, detailed in the book she co-authored in 2007, "Living SMART: Five Essential Skills to Change Your Health Habits Forever" (DiaMedica, $14.95, 208 pages).

The five approaches are: Set a goal; monitor your progress; arrange your environment; recruit someone to support you; treat your success.

"Behavioral science has been around for decades, and we really do know how to help people change their behavior," Pruitt said. "It's not a pill you can take. It's not something that helps you tomorrow."

Mendoza, the personal trainer, has figured out some of this. He checks in "constantly" with training clients, he said (checking off the R in Pruitt's SMART steps).

"Everyone comes in with the goal 'I want to lose 50 pounds by March.' That's just not realistic," Mendoza said. "I make short-term goals: 'Let's try to lose 10 pounds this month, and we'll go from there.' Once they can see some progress, they're not going to want to go back."

The American Psychological Association publishes a New Year's resolutions guide, which mirrors Pruitt's. Besides starting small and getting social support, the APA reminds self-improvers not to expect perfection.

"Minor missteps are completely normal and OK," the guidelines say. "Don't give up completely because you ate a brownie."

Walker, the man of many goals, already sensed that.

"I don't think all these resolutions will be met by the end of the year," he said. "But I will be satisfied if I knock out a few."

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