There’s nothing like the start of a new year to get people refocused and start making the changes that they’ve been putting off for the last few months. I was never a big fan of resolutions. I didn’t see the point of them. People were all gung ho about doing these new things but creating behavioral change isn’t easy. And I always thought people went about it with such drastic changes. Human beings are extremists by nature. If some is good, more has to be better and this is part of the reason resolutions typically never last more than a few weeks.
Behavioral change is a process, not a singular event. According to a study published by the Harvard Medical School, behavioral change should be thought of in a 5-step process known as the transtheoretical method. The five stages are as follows: precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, and maintenance.
Making real change requires a consciousness of where you are exactly in the process. For example, a smoker who is not even in the precontemplation stage, that is thinking about quitting, is not about to quit at the behest of a family member. Each stage builds on the next, so it’s important to not skip steps.
Precontemplation: At this stage you have little to no desire to actually make a change and usually that is due to lack of awareness or information. For example, someone needing to lose weight tells a friend of theirs “being overweight is hereditary for me, it’s just genetics.” This person largely doesn’t believe change is possible for them because they’ve either tried and failed before OR they aren’t ready to admit that they’re behavior/choices are the cause of their problem. This person needs some kind of informational spark to get them to actually contemplate change. Generally, a case study that they can relate to is a good place to start.
Contemplation: At this stage you are ready to start making a change BUT you aren’t quite ready to put anything into action. This is largely because you start weighing the pros and cons of what your behavioral change actually means. For example, the person needing to lose weight says, “Ok, I’ll drop weight, but then I’ll have to buy new clothes, and I don’t have the money to do that right now,” OR, “Well, being healthy means I have to spend time exercising, and I can’t be spending two hours at the gym every day.” It’s important to explain to this person that the benefits of their behavioral change are going to far outweigh any residual changes to their lifestyle. So, what if the diabetic might have to revamp what is stocked in their kitchen, if they continue down the path they’re on, they increase their chances of dying a premature death.
Preparation: This is the point in creating real change where most of us make our mistakes. You’re ready to make changes, BUT the plan of action isn’t sound. For example, you want to drink less alcohol but you don’t get rid of any alcohol you have at home. All it takes is a stressful day at work and BOOM – you’re having a drink at home on a random Tuesday night. We also tend to give ourselves goals at this stage that aren’t attainable in the short term. For example, the person who hasn’t worked out in a year and is a 30-40 lbs overweight says “I’m going to work out 5 days a week and lose 20 pounds by the end of the month.” They make no other plans with their diet, work out hard for one week only to see that they haven’t dropped any weight. They get discouraged, and go right back to working out just once a week.
Action: At this stage you’ve identified a good plan of action and started carrying out with that process. It’s important to let friends and family know of the change you’re trying to make once you get here. If they don’t know, they’ll likely peer pressure you into making a decision that derails your progress. If it is a change that is paramount to your health, such as quitting smoking or losing weight, your friends and family will understand. It’s just a matter of not listening to the voice in your head that tells you they’re going to stop being your friend. It’s important to remember the why of your motivation in this stage. Write it down and have it posted somewhere you’re going to see daily. Engage in positive self talk. Stick to your plan and mark of the little attainable goals that will end up resulting in the major change you desire.
Maintenance: Once you’ve practiced your change for 6 months or more you’re officially in the maintenance stage. This stage requires that you continue to make overlapping changes to the rest of your life to continue to bolster this one. Relapse is always a possibility because of how our emotion triggers our decision making. Life is unpredictable and curveballs that frustrate or sadden you can always happen, so it’s important to be sure your life is set up to deal with that. Again, leaning on family or friends is important here.
Behavioral change is not easy but the first step is identifying that you do have a problem and then educating yourself about it. Information is a great catalyst to arm yourself with the tools necessary to make real change. Learn all you can about your situation and then be honest with yourself about why you got to the point you are at now. Create a sensible, attainable plan and really embrace the new you.