The beginning of a new year often brings a sense of hope and inspiration, provides an opportunity for a fresh start, and renews our motivation towards making positive changes in our lives. We make resolutions to eat healthier, lose weight, do more things to make us happy, quit bad habits, manage time effectively, get more organized, etc. Do these resolutions work? Did you succeed in your resolutions from last year? Often, it seems that as the year moves forward, the momentum slows down, we get busy, and despite our efforts, old habits ultimately resurface.
Change is hard sometimes. We may have the best of intentions, we may do great for a while, but for many of us, we tend to slip back into old habits. As they say, "old habits die hard." Why is that? Let's examine the process of change, and in doing so, open the possibility for unravelling some of the complexities, while also gaining new insights into how to make deep, lasting change.
In the late 1970's, researchers James Prochaska and Carlo DiClemente developed a "Stages of Change Model." In this model, change occurs over time, and relapses are an inevitable part of the process of making a lifelong change. They discovered that initially, people are likely to be unwilling or resistant to change. However, they also found that people have the potential to develop a long term, proactive, and committed approach to changing a behavior.
Below is a summary of the Stages of Change model, along with some tips I've included to help facilitate the process of making positive change. While reading, think of your goal for the new year. Try to reflect on which stage you are in, where you'd like to be, and strategies for making lasting change...
Where do you fall in the Stages of Change?
Stage 1: Precontemplation (Not Ready)
People at this stage do not intend to start the healthy behavior in the near future (within 6 months), and may be unaware of the need to change. Precontemplators typically underestimate the pros of changing, overestimate the cons, and often are not aware of making such mistakes.
Tip: Learn more about the alternative healthy behavior. Think about the benefits of changing the behavior, feel emotions about the effects of the negative behavior on others. Become more mindful of your decision making and more conscious of the multiple benefits of changing an unhealthy behavior.
Stage 2: Contemplation (Getting Ready)
At this stage, you are intending to start the healthy behavior within the next 6 months. At this point, you are now more aware of the benefits of changing, the cons are about equal to their pros. This ambivalence about changing can cause you to keep putting off taking action.
Tip: People here might want to reflect and learn about the kind of person they could be if they changed their behavior and learn more from people who behave in healthy ways. Try to work at reducing the cons of changing the behavior. Maybe try a visualization exercise about what things would look like in your life if you succeeded in taking action toward your goal.
Another important strategy would be to evaluate your thought process. What types of statements are you telling yourself that lead to the undesired behavior? What are some counter-statements you could use as an alternative? Is it possible to change your perspective on how you are viewing things? Keep a thought journal and track your thought processes to examine the patterns.
Stage 3: Preparation (Ready)
People at this stage are ready to start taking action within the next 30 days. They take small steps that they believe can help them make the healthy behavior a part of their lives. For example, they tell their trusted friends and family about their plan to change their behavior.
Tip: Accountability can be a strong motivator, and can also provide social support - having people who believe in you and cheer you on - may provide that extra encouragement to keep you going, especially during challenging times when you may be vulnerable to setbacks.
During the preparation stage, it may be helpful to examine your "triggers." What makes you vulnerable to engage in the behavior you are trying to change? Being mindful of these triggers can help you in building your strategies, and gain insight into the vicious cycle you are trying to break.
Also, it may prove helpful to think of what obstacles might get in the way of achieving your goal. Do some pre-planning to come up with ideas on how to overcome the obstacles when they come along.
Stage 4: Action
People at this stage have changed their behavior within the last 6 months, and need to work hard to keep moving ahead. In this stage, you need to stay motivated to your commitment to change and to fight urges to slip back.
Tip: Break your goal into small steps. Make a timeline, with dates for each step. Reward yourself with things that make you happy as you complete each step in your goal. Try to be mindful to avoiding people, patterns, and situations that tempt you to behave in unhealthy ways.
Stage 5: Maintenance
People at this stage changed their behavior more than 6 months ago. It is critical for people in this stage to continually be aware of triggers that may tempt them to slip back into doing the unhealthy behavior, particularly stressful situations, or times when you are feeling depressed.
Tip: It is recommended that people in this stage seek support from and talk with people whom they trust, spend time with people who behave in healthy ways, and remember to engage in alternative activities to cope with stress instead of relying on unhealthy behavior. It might be helpful to make a list of alternative positive behaviors to help combat stress and depression, such as listening to music, going to the gym, or reaching out to a good friend. Remember to not be too hard on yourself if you slip up. Be forgiving. Just use the setback as motivation to get back on track.
The Stages of Change model provides an insightful framework for examining the process of change. From there, we can reflect on our own goals and progress. Where do you fall in the Stages of Change? How might you move into the next stage? What will you do if you have a setback? Can you visualize yourself accomplishing your goals and resolutions for the new year? How will you maintain your new behavior for the long term? How will you reward yourself for your accomplishments? Change is hard, but not impossible. With motivation and strategies for maintenance, we do have the ability to making deep, lasting changes in our lives.
I hope this discussion was helpful to you in some way. I wish you the best for a happy, healthy new year! I thought I would leave you with the following quote to ponder...
"Nobody can go back and start a new beginning, but anyone can start today and make a new ending.” - Maria Robinson
Happy New Year!
Jessica L. Hupf, M.A.
Therapy for children, families, couples and individuals.