"This is the year I get in shape. This is the year I get organized. This is the year I get control of my finances."
What is it about the arrival of a new year that compels so many of us to resolve to change our behavior? And if so many of us keep making resolutions, why do so few of us keep them? Making — and breaking — New Year's resolutions is one of life's all-too-familiar psychodramas.
Indeed, there seem to be nearly as many studies of the resolution phenomenon as there are resolutions themselves. John Norcross, a professor of psychology at the University of Scranton, in Scranton, Pennsylvania, has conducted three studies of people who make resolutions. "The situation is not as bad as people think it is," he insists. Sure, more than half of the people in one of his studies had broken their resolutions after six months. But 96% of the people in a control group — people who wanted to change their behavior but hadn't resolved to do so — had also failed to change in that length of time.
His conclusion? "You're 10 times as likely to succeed by making a resolution as to succeed by not making one." So what separates those who succeed from those who don't? Three factors, Norcross argues: "the readiness to change, the confidence that you can change, and the skills needed to change — above all, an ability to plan."
We can't help with your readiness or your confidence. But we can offer some pointers on making a plan — by pointing you to the Web. This edition of @Work (renamed @1999) identifies Web-based tools and support groups that will help you stick to some of the most popular resolutions — from losing weight to getting organized. Why not start the New Year by resolving to get help from a new medium?
"I'm Gonna Get in Shape."
Getting in shape can mean lots of things. Maybe you want to lose weight. Maybe you want to eat better and to exercise more. Maybe you want to quit smoking.
The Web is overflowing with practical resources, smart advice, and online support for people who resolve to improve their health. You can virtually gorge on the many useful sites that are now up and running.
Of course, you have to start somewhere. And the place to start with resolutions is Thrive (www.thriveonline.com). The site, a joint venture of America Online and Time Inc., has five core areas: "medical," "diet," "fitness," "sports" (outdoor recreation), and "passion" (sex). Thrive offers various online resources, including newsletters, advice columns, and lots of community interaction.
What distinguishes Thrive from other health-oriented sites is its explicit focus on resolutions, in an area called New Year's @ Thrive. For example, New Year's @ Thrive has an "Are You Ready to Lose Weight?" quiz — a diagnostic that evaluates just how determined you are to slim down. It tests, among other things, your motivation ("I know why I want to lose weight at this time"), your sense of personal responsibility ("I feel in control of whether I achieve the weight I desire"), and your support system ("I don't feel there is anyone I can talk to about my weight-loss concerns and goals").
Once you decide on a goal, you complete a Personal Resolution Contract, which in turn generates an action plan. The 12-week contract is a lively combination of affirmations, checklists, and rewards. Thrive's message boards provide day-to-day support to help you stick to your contract. You can find a weight-loss buddy, swap diet strategies, and compare specific diet plans.
For those who are more concerned about a healthy diet than a trim waistline, Thrive also offers an eight-week program that will help you eat smarter. Plus, you can tap into a discussion area where Thrive community members share recipes.
To be sure, losing weight or sticking to a healthy diet takes more than tasty recipes. It also requires commitment, reinforced by detailed information — on how many calories you're consuming, on how many you're burning, and on how well you're progressing.
Prevention's Healthy Ideas (www.healthyideas.com), a Web site coproduced by Women.com Networks and Prevention magazine (the best-selling health magazine in the United States) offers online tools that provide such information.
One tool is the Daily Meal Planner. Enter your weight, your normal level of physical activity, your desired weight, and your gender — the planner will calculate how many calories you should take in each day. But it doesn't stop with setting goals. It also helps with creating menus. You can create a menu for an entire day (breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack) by selecting from various options. As you make your choices, the planner deducts the corresponding number of calories from your daily limit. If you exceed your goal, the planner alerts you to adjust the menu. It even has links to recipes for the dishes that you select.
The site's Calorie Calculator helps you to stick to your menu. Just enter your weight and the amount of time you plan to spend on an activity, and it will tell you how many calories you'll burn in the process, along with the food equivalent of those calories. For example, if you weigh 135 pounds and you ride a stationary bicycle for 30 minutes at 5.5 mph, you will burn 107 calories. That's the equivalent of five ounces of red wine, one ounce of pastrami, or two small chocolate-chip cookies. No wonder so few of us live up to our resolution to lose weight!
"I'm Gonna Get Organized."
People with hectic, complicated lives keep looking for the killer app that will organize their schedules and maintain their contacts. A few good tools have emerged, including PC software like Microsoft Outlook 98 and Symantec Act!, and personal digital assistants (PDAs) like the PalmPilot. The Web can't replace those tools, but it does offer services that supplement them.
When.com (www.when.com), a free event directory and calendar service, is one cutting-edge example. The site looks like a typical desktop-calendar application — and it acts like one too. It offers "views" of your schedule by month, week, and day. Enter a new appointment, along with a day and time, and When.com will put it on your schedule and alert you to conflicts.
Why use When.com if you already use PC software or a PDA? Because it tracks events in more than a dozen interest categories, and it tracks them in real time. When.com has struck partnerships with companies that monitor movie openings, video releases, Net chats, sports schedules, and more. The site posts that information on an easy-to-read menu, and makes it easy to link such events to your schedule. Once you've created your personal calendar, you can 'subscribe' to events and add them to your calendar with the click of a button.
Let's say you're a New York Rangers fan. When.com can alert you to the dates and times of all Rangers games, and then put that information in your Favorite Events folder. If you're a die-hard fan, you can visit your Favorite Events folder, click on a button, and add the team's entire schedule to your calendar.
Once you get control of your schedule, it's time to manage your contacts. PlanetAll (www.planetall.com) lets you maintain a dynamic address book that is accessible from any computer with a modem. One nice feature of PlanetAll, relative to PC software, is that it's free. Another nice feature is that it doesn't just maintain your own contacts — it provides you with access to nearly 1.5 million other PlanetAll users as well.
Once you subscribe to PlanetAll, you create a "personal directory" that includes the coordinates of friends and associates. You can either enter that information by hand or import it from a contact manager. The site also lets you link to other PlanetAll members, whose contact information you can transfer into your directory (after you get their permission, of course).
Even better, other subscribers can grant you access to contact information from their address books. And PlanetAll does automatic updates: Whenever a subscriber to whom you are linked changes an address or a phone number, that information gets changed in your address book — without your having to lift a finger.
"I'm Gonna Manage My Money."
Forget trading stocks online. When it comes to managing money, most of us would do well to focus on the little things — paying off credit cards, balancing checkbooks — before we try for the big score.
If your New Year's resolutions include doing a better job with personal finance, then Quicken.com (www.quicken.com) is the place to start on the Web. Among its most useful features are some very basic tools: worksheets, calculators, and service-comparison charts.
Say you want to get control of your credit cards. The site's Debt Reduction Planner provides the tools you need. First you gather your credit-card statements, along with information on your bank accounts. Then you enter your account balances into the debt-reduction worksheet, and the planner calculates how long it will take you to pay off your debts and how much interest you'll pay along the way. Next the planner suggests some adjustments in your monthly payments and some cuts in your monthly expenditures. Finally, it calculates how much sooner you'll be able to pay off your debts if you follow its advice.
Will 1999 be the year when you toss out your shoebox and passbook and enter the promised land of online banking? We'll all be doing our banking over the Net eventually. But "eventually" is a pretty elastic concept. To start now, you have to figure out whether your bank offers Net-based service (or whether banking on the Internet will mean doing business with another bank) and which banks do the best job online.
The Gomez Internet Banker Scorecard (www.scorecard.com/banks) ranks the Net presence of more than 50 institutions. The scorecard uses five criteria: ease of use (Is it easy to get started?), customer confidence (Does the site offer good service?), on-site resources (Does the site offer an array of products?), relationship services (How good is the bank at building relationships?), and overall cost (Are there hidden fees?).
If your bank is rated poorly, the site helps you to identify a bank that's right for you. First you figure out which of four customer profiles you meet: transactor, borrower, saver, or consolidator. Then the scorecard suggests institutions that are best equipped to cater to your needs. You may never need to talk to a bank teller again.
Action Item: Software for Hard Bodies
So this is the year when you resolve to get tighter buns and flatter abs. There's just one problem: Although you're willing to "feel the burn," you don't want to burn lots of money on a personal trainer. Thanks to computer technology, you can enjoy the benefits of personal attention — without incurring the cost.
Active Trainer is an interactive fitness CD-ROM from Toronto-based LaserMedia. The program — hosted by the mega-muscular Shane Minor and the radically ripped Liz West — helps you design and execute a personalized training program. To get started, you create a user profile by entering your vital statistics (height, weight, age, sex), by providing fat and muscle measurements (the package includes a tape measure and a pair of calipers), and by taking a test of your strength and endurance. Using this data, the CD-ROM designs a fitness plan that suits your needs.
Then it's time to learn your workout program. You enter the Stretching Area, the Weight Room, or the Aerobics Studio, and meet your virtual trainer. The trainer then outlines exercises, offers advice on technique, and shouts encouragement. After you do the program for a couple of weeks, you provide feedback: Is it too hard or too easy, too long or too short? Then the software adjusts the program accordingly.
Coordinates: $54.95. LaserMedia Inc., 888-639-0628, www.activefitness.com
Sidebar: 5 Ways to Keep 1 Resolution
When it comes to strange human behavior, clinical psychologist Robert R. Butterworth has just about seen it all. Based in Los Angeles, he is the on-air resident psychologist for "The Jerry Springer Show." For the past eight years, he has also studied that strange piece of human behavior called the New Year's resolution. Butterworth isn't convinced that the Web can play a big role in helping people stick to resolutions. In fact, if people listened to his advice, they'd give up the resolution ritual altogether. "New Year's resolutions raise our expectations, put too many of us under extreme pressure, and turn the New Year sour when they go bust," he warns.
Alas, just as every "Jerry Springer" episode seems guaranteed to end in fisticuffs, so every year seems guaranteed to begin with a new round of resolutions. But if you have to make 'em, at least heed Butterworth's advice on how not to break 'em.
One is enough. "Most people fail with their resolutions because they take on too many of them. Don't make two or three resolutions. Make one and discard the rest."
Easy does It. "Don't try to make a 360-degree change. Try a 45-degree change. People tend to make resolutions that are too long-range and too all-encompassing. Develop your goals — and measure your progress — in small steps."
Keep it to yourself. "Don't advertise your resolution to others. That way, you won't feel the added pressure that comes with messing up in front of the whole world."
Be your own boss. "Too many people adopt resolutions that other people have made for them: 'You really need to lose 10 pounds,' or 'This is the year you balance your checkbook.' It's hard enough to change something that you want to change. It's even harder to change something that other people tell you to change."
Failure is part of success. "A big part of sticking to resolutions is getting through bad days. I've seen people who'll stop smoking for three weeks, have one cigarette, and say, 'Well, I'll try again next year.' They didn't break their resolution. They just had a bad day. Don't focus on the day when you failed. Focus on all of the days when you won. Keep a chart, monitor your successes, and don't give up!"
Coordinates: Robert R. Butterworth, www.yearbooknews.com/html/butterwr.html
Sidebar: How I Kicked Butt on the Web
"Hello, my name is Gina, and I'm a smoker. It's been one week since my last cigarette."
It's 10:30 on a Monday night. I'm at home, working on this sidebar and finding it hard to concentrate. I want to write a great opening paragraph. But I want a Marlboro Light even more. I wish I had a support group to help me through this moment of weakness.
Actually, I do. I have spent the past three weeks in Kick Butt, a six-week antismoking program on the Web. Kick Butt is a "community challenge" organized by Better Health, a Web site sponsored by iVillage Inc. It provides smokers with all the expertise, tricks of the trade, and human support that they need to keep the third-most-common New Year's resolution. It offers tips on exercise and diet, as well as "personal rituals" designed to help you kick the cigarette habit. It also has online classes run by Debora Orrick, an addictions expert who has been an ex-smoker for 12 years. The classes are highly motivating — and they require homework, in the form of journal-writing.
The Web site even offers a Digital Conscience — a weekly email that steels your resolve to stay smoke-free. To make that email fun, the site lets you give your conscience a personality: Mom is encouraging and sweet; Constance is a friend who's trying to quit with you; Coach favors a no-nonsense, stop-your-whining approach. I chose Coach. (Hey, I'm Italian. I respond best to people who yell.)
But for me, the most valuable feature of Kick Butt has been its capacity to connect me with other people who are struggling to stop smoking. The Kick Butt Quitters Club is a community created by addicted people who need people — 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The night I signed on, eight fellow-quitters were standing by, ready to help me overcome my burning desire to sprint down to the corner store for a pack of cigs. "Don't do it!" one implored. "Do a bunch of sit-ups," another advised. "Pretend that there's a blizzard outside and that you're snowed in," said yet another.
Reasonable suggestions, all. But what helped most was the simple act of online communication itself. All the typing on the computer keyboard occupied my hands; chatting with my virtual friends occupied my mind. I stayed online for two hours. By the time I logged off, I had a renewed sense of willpower, a fresh dose of self-confidence — and no convenient options: The corner store had closed for the night.
Coordinates: Kick Butt, www.betterhealth.com/community/kickbutt
Associate Editor Gina Imperato (firstname.lastname@example.org) has resolved to quit smoking in 1999.
A version of this article appeared in the January 1999 issue of Fast Company magazine.