Lots of people want to change. Whether we’re talking about giving up alcohol or other drugs, creating healthy eating habits, developing a regular exercise routine, or substituting calm conversation for angry outbursts, we all have some desire to let go of unhealthy habits and turn instead to healthy ones. So why is it that some people are successful at creating new habits, while other people fail over and over again? To answer that question, let’s take a look at Prochaska and DiClemente’s Stages of Change Model.
According to this model, everyone who successfully implements a major life change must pass through five distinct stages. 1) Precontemplation, also known as denial. In this stage, the individual isn’t even considering a change. The old behavior seems to be working just fine. 2) Contemplation. The individual knows the old behavior is causing problems, but hasn’t fully committed to doing things differently. The pros of implementing new behavior don’t outweigh the cons. 3) Preparation. At this point, the individual knows the old behavior (i.e., alcohol use, fatty meals, fits of rage) isn’t working, but hasn’t yet figured out what to do about it. 4) Action. The individual has committed to changing their behavior and has implemented that change. 5) Maintenance. Once a person has spent enough time in the Action Stage of Change, the new behavior becomes more comfortable and natural than the old behavior. The Maintenance Stage of Change is named this way for a reason, however. When a person has practiced unhealthy habits for a very long period of time, they may always be at risk for relapse. During the Maintenance Stage, people must actively practice new, healthy habits and remain on guard for relapse to old behaviors.
I’ve said that you need to want change before you can successfully implement change. So what if you don’t really want it? What if sitting on the couch eating potato chips and watching TV is just plain more appealing than taking a run in the heat after a long day at work and eating a salad for dinner? If this is your situation, you need to implement some motivational enhancement strategies. Don’t take that run just yet. Instead, start a journal. Identify the old habits that you are considering letting go as well as the new habits you’d like to adopt. Write down all the pros and cons you can imagine for the old behavior and the new, both short-term and long-term. Continue to journal on a daily basis about the pros and cons of the old and new behaviors. If you can get yourself out for a run one day, do it and write about it. Don’t bother committing to any major behavioral changes while you’re still in the Precontemplation or Contemplation Stage of Change. Just take it one day at a time.
If you focus on motivational enhancement strategies early in your change process, eventually you will arrive at the Preparation Stage of Change. Very often, people need help from professionals, peer groups, etc. to learn how to practice new habits and stick to them consistently. Once you’ve reached the Preparation Stage, you can really start implementing different behaviors. The key here is to focus on what you want, rather than what you don’t want. If, for example, you have a problem with alcohol, don’t set a goal every day NOT to drink alcohol. Instead, set a goal to only drink water, juice, and milk. You might even set a goal to drink 8 servings of water, so that you’re really focusing on what’s healthy. If you need to include soda and sweet tea in your goal set, so be it. Of course avoiding alcohol is a crucial part of the plan to achieve your daily goal, but it isn’t the focus. The idea is to focus on what you do want, so that you’re not preoccupied with whatever it is you’re trying to avoid. Additional options for a goal involving alcohol avoidance would be to go to an AA meeting, call someone in the program, and get some exercise.
Let’s consider another example. Your old behavior involves lack of exercise and an unhealthy diet. These habits have led to obesity, poor self-esteem, high cholesterol, and heart trouble. You’ve done the work to get yourself motivated to change, and now you need to set some healthy goals. SET GOALS THAT APPEAL TO YOU. I hate working out in a gym, so that will never become a habit for me. I can go to the gym, but I won’t ever like it. I walk. I walk 5-6 miles per day, almost every day. Getting into a habit of walking was a challenge for me, but it was a realistic challenge. I enjoy salads, so it’s realistic for me to set a goal of eating several salads a week. I make my meal planning fun by coming up with salads that I can enjoy. That’s what works for me. If you don’t like salads, put in the effort to find other healthy recipes that you can enjoy fixing and eating. Whatever your goals are, make sure they fit both your personality and your lifestyle, or you will never be successful. That’s not to say you will always love doing whatever it is you’ve set out to do, but at least you need to be able to imagine enjoying it some of the time.
So to recap, in order to change your habits you must first truly want to change, and then you must create positive goals that reflect realistic possibilities for you. There’s no set number of time, days, or repetitions that are guaranteed to make a new habit stick. Just be patient with yourself, be loving, and remember to take it one day at a time. Happy new habits to you!