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Joliet professor explains the psychology behind New Year's resolutions

Psychologist Margot Underwood shares strategies for making and keeping resolutions

JOLIET – Research shows about 50 percent of people make New Year’s resolutions, said Margot Underwood, associate professor of psychology at Joliet Junior College.

Whether one wants to lose weight, eat healthier, exercise more or stop smoking, resolutions have similar elements behind them.

“The resolution comes from some kind of self-awareness, that there is a problem you want to resolve,” Underwood said. “It’s about reinventing yourself and saying, ‘Hey, wait a second. I have this problem and I want to change it.’”

Underwood said the psychologist Carl Rogers refers to the tension between congruence (“Who we think we should be,” Underwood said) and incongruence (“Who we are not,” Underwood said). It’s this tension that motivates one to change.

“We don’t like to be incongruent,” Underwood said. “We like to be who we say we are.”

That said, research also shows only 8 percent of the people who make resolutions actually fulfill them, Underwood said. So how to tip the scales to that coveted percentile?

Get S.M.A.R.T.

In other words, set goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-oriented, Underwood said.

“The reason why people don’t fulfill their goals is because they’re vague,” Underwood said. “‘Oh, I want to lose weight. I want to walk more.’”

For the person taking up walking, a Fitbit will measure the steps even as listening to “walking” music will make the steps fun, Underwood said. If the goal is drinking more water when one dislikes water, try flavoring the water, Underwood added.

Maybe eating out on busy work days is a diet’s undoing. Instead, plan ahead and pack a lunch, a delicious lunch, so one isn’t choosing between Portillo’s and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, Underwood said.

All too often, unfortunately, a good beginning doesn’t lead to a successful conclusion.

“If you pass any health club in January, you’ll have the most people there than at any other time of the year,” Underwood said. “Then come back to the health clubs six weeks later in mid-February and see what they’re like.”

In addition to getting S.M.A.R.T., many people require two additional elements to fulfill their resolutions: intrinsic motivation and support. Many people rely on extrinsic motivation (“I want to fit into that dress for the wedding,” Underwood said) and then later regress so that lasting change never occurs.

“So many lose weight initially,” Underwood said, “and then put on at least a third of what they lose.”

Although occasional rewards can be fun and motivating – who doesn’t enjoy a new pair of shoes, Underwood said – external rewards will never ultimately satisfy. For long-term success, Underwood said, people need motivation beyond looking good for a wedding.

Such as?

“I like how I feel when I walk more,” Underwood said. “And I ate differently when I was walking.”

One way to see past the short-term rewards is to make a vision board – a poster board with images of changes one would like to see throughout the year, almost like a bucket list, Underwood said.

Next, enlist your supporters.

Underwood said recovering alcoholics know it’s easier to abstain in a support group meeting than in a bar. So find a walking partner or share your progress with your family, she added. Underwood experienced the value of her own advice when she was recovering from cancer surgery.

“Maybe I only got 1,000 steps on the Fitbit because I was in a wheelchair, but I kept track of it with my social group, and if I got 200 steps in, the people were like, ‘Good job,’” Underwood said. “Every time I made the wheelchair move was still work.”

What about the 50 percent that don’t make resolutions? Some, like Underwood, do make resolutions, just not on New Year’s Day. For instance, Underwood makes resolutions on her birthday, setting goals she’d like to attain before the next birthday.

Others self-evaluate throughout the year and initiate changes as changes are needed, Underwood said, adding that the reasons why people don’t make resolutions are as varied as the individuals.

“Some people think it’s a Hallmark trendy thing to do so,” Underwood said.

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