Your New Year’s Resolution is Not the Problem
If you've ever wished that you could change your eating behavior for good, without going back to the way things were, then we’ve got good news for you. Most people who make major changes in their lives go through specific stages in order to modify their behavior permanently.
Change is never easy, especially when it involves our behavior. Luckily, scientists like James Prochaska & C.C. DiClemente have outlined the various stages we go through along the way. Change is not just an on-and-off switch. To outsiders, maybe someone is either dieting or they are not dieting. But internally, there are many stages a person goes through before dieting ever begins. There a few steps that precede real behavioral changes, steps we must go through before change can become natural and permanent.
Knowing where we fall in the stages of true change can help us move forward and gain momentum to achieve our goals and more importantly, to change our behavior for good.
The “Transtheoretical model” - a fancy term for what is about to follow - examines how we go through the process of creating change from start to finish. The basic gist is this: You could be in 1 of 5 possible stages of change at any given point of your life, and it’s normal to cycle between phases. You can’t rush from one stage to the other, each stage progresses differently for every person.
Stage 1: Precontemplative
In this stage, you are not thinking about making a change. You might see interesting ideas for losing weight or for an exercise routine, but they don’t really make an impact on you. A lot of people revert to this stage after former attempts at weight loss, no matter if they were successful or not. About 40% of Americans who are at risk for health issues at any given point in time are in this stage.
Stage 2: Contemplation
Here, you begin to realize that your current behavior is ‘at odds’ with the goals you’d like to achieve. For example, you know that eating desserts every night is not in line with your goal to control your weight. In this stage, you start weighing the options, and evaluating the risks versus the benefits of possibly changing your behavior. But you are not ready to change yet. Many people feel guilty in this stage, but embrace it! Know that the only way to move to the next stage is to educate yourself. Fill your mind with knowledge about how change could be beneficial to you. To give you some perspective, roughly 40% of Americans are in this stage at any given point in time - you are certainly not alone.
Stage 3: Preparation
You join a gym or health club. You prepare to cook more at home, instead of eating out. You begin researching diet plans that work for people who enjoy a variety of foods. This stage is not real change, as much as it might look like it. But it is an extremely important step. Just like a runner warms up before the race, this warm-up stage is preparing you. Real change is coming, and this is where you can begin to run your race. At any point in time 20% of Americans are in the preparation stage.
Stage 4: Action
Joining a gym is a fantastic first step. But if you never go, or if you only go once, then you have never fully progressed to the action stage. In the action phase, you are saying no to dessert, and have stopped buying sweets at the store. You have your gym times scheduled into your calendar, and you keep the appointment just like you would with you doctor or dentist. Stage 4 is easy to recognize for people around you – they can see you making smart choices and you may feel determined and powerful in this stage. Here is where you take challenges head on, and your preparation stage pays off. In this stage it is important to make and keep realistic and actionable agreements with yourself. Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Instead, layer on new healthy habits over time so that you do not burn out due to overwhelm or stress.
Stage 5: Maintenance
Here, old habits have died away, and you no longer consider yourself a person who eats dessert very often. You identify yourself as ‘healthy’ and old eating patterns have slipped out of your mind. You are not who you used to be, and you are choosing to live and think differently about your life. People typically enter this stage when they have successfully implemented their new behavior for about six months, and the goal is to help identify situations and triggers that used to be associated with old behaviors.
When Things Go Out of Order
Ahh, if only behavior change could be so linear… but it's not. Every person who has ever made a true, lasting change has had relapses. And most likely lots of them. It’s important to learn skills and tools that will help you pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and try again. It takes courage to try to lose weight again, especially if you have tried many times before. However, each time you do, you are little bit smarter. You can find ways around the obstacles you encountered before. You know what works and what doesn’t. You can move from one stage to the next much more quickly.
The most important thing is to never, never lose sight of hope. Hope is that childish feeling where we allow ourselves to believe something is possible, even when there are more reasons not to believe. Even when we have failed over and over again. Hope can help us remember our goals when we've forgotten them. Hope can move us through from any one stage to the next stage, and by constantly educating ourselves and finding ways to succeed despite challenges, we can keep the forward movement going. And eventually, we will have changed our behavior for good.
1. DiClemente, Carlo C.; Prochaska, James O. Miller, William R. (Ed); Heather, Nick (Ed), (1998). Treating addictive behaviors (2nd ed.). Applied clinical psychology., (pp. 3-24). New York, NY, US: Plenum Press, xii, pp 357
2. James O. Prochaska and Wayne F. Velicer (1997) The Transtheoretical Model of Health Behavior Change. American Journal of Health Promotion: September/October 1997, Vol. 12, No. 1, pp. 38-48