As the year comes to a close, the hot topic around the water cooler is New Year’s resolutions. The barrage of questions comes in. “What are you gonna work on?” “You tryna lose weight like everyone else?” “What are you gonna quit?”
We stop and think, as we are presented with these questions. We reflect on the events that took place – both good and bad alike. We engage in an internal dialogue about the progress, or lackthereof, since last January 1st. Preparing to put the year behind us, our focus turns to the coming year.
However, with this idea comes a reality check. To follow through on your New Year’s resolution means making a change. Oh no, not that word.
It is amazing the feelings that one word can elicit with apprehension, fear, and anxiety being among the most common. It is no surprise why so many fail when confronted with change. The thought of transition stops most people in their tracks, while a select few embrace it. Simply thinking about the steps someone has to take to make a major change is overwhelming. It is even more daunting to outline those steps and follow through on them, especially if trying to replace a habit, behavior, or thought pattern that has been engrained into one’s psyche.
However, like most common fears, by developing an understanding of change and our reactions to it, it is not as scary as initially perceived. We will also be more prepared to confront it and have stronger, more appropriate strategies to fight back.
In the early 1980’s, two researchers named James Prochaska and Carlo DiClemente provided a theoretical framework for change based on their extensive substance use research. This was deemed the “stages of change” (Department of Health, 2004). Over the decades, the framework has been expanded to include nearly any behavior. Other researchers have also altered, added to, and adapted the stages of change over the years. For the purposes of this post, the focal point will be the original five stages proposed by Prochaska and DiClemente.
Stage 1- Pre-Contemplation– An individual is not even thinking about making a change and might become defensive when confronted about their behavior. Often times, the individual is in denial of their problematic behavior. In their mind, the pros of their behavior outweigh the cons.
Example- An overweight individual that eats between 3,000 and 4,000 calories a day (recommended is 2,000 calories a day). There is no set exercise routine and spend the better part of their day immobile. The individual engages in this lifestyle day in and day out. When a family member or friend brings up the topic, the individual becomes guarded and defensive. They will go as far as to justify their behavior (i.e. “I haven’t had any problems so far” or “I enjoy food too much”).
How to move out of the pre-contemplation stage- Have open ears and an open mind. If someone is bringing up an issue to your attention, they are normally not doing it to be malicious. It usually comes from a perspective of concern. It does not mean you have to take action that instant, but it does not hurt to hear them out. Simply “thinking about it” has its merit (Sholl, 2011). It helps to plant the seed often times that will lead to later stages.
Stage 2- Contemplation- The individual has started to consider their behavior as an issue, but the thought is met with ambivalence to move forward. The individual reflects on the ongoing benefits of the behavior, but the negative consequences are more prevalent. The person shows some level of acceptance yet remains on the fence about a definitive decision.
Example- The overweight individual goes to their annual checkup with their family doctor. Recent lab work reveals that the individual’s cholesterol is dangerously high and that they are borderline diabetic. The doctor immediately puts the individual on medication to bring down the cholesterol levels. The doctor also refers the individuals to an endocrinologist and cardiologist. The individual realizes that the recent news may be due to their eating habits and lack of exercise.
How to move out of the contemplation stage- Engage in self-reflection. Rather than seeing the situation as distressful, utilize this opportunity to envision a better self. There are a number of concrete strategies that can help with this as well.
- “Vision board” – Some people need to see a visual representation of their goals as a form of motivation. The idea behind the vision board is physically putting together a picture of board showing where you want to be when the change has taken hold (Sholl, 2011).
- Pros and cons- A simple evaluation of the pros and cons of the habit/behavior can provide just the right amount of impact to kick someone into gear. I have two personal favorite ways to do this. The first way involves listing out the pros and cons next to each other. Once the list is complete, it helps to look at which side has a stronger “impact.” There may only be one item under pros or cons, but its impact might totally outweigh the other side altogether. My other favorite is called the “decision matrix.” A page is split into quadrants. The top half lists the pros and cons of the one decision, while the bottom shows the pros and cons of the other.
- Reaching out for support- In this case, the support would likely fall under one of two categories: professional and mentor. Professional support can assist in addressing obstacles or answering specific questions. For instance, attending a consultation with a nutritionist could be beneficial if you are thinking about changing your diet. There are other individuals who could provide an inspiring role. Often times these individuals have been on a similar journey before you. A prime example of the mentor role is sponsors in Alcoholics/Narcotics Anonymous.
- Preliminary research- Knowledge is power. Humans’ greatest fear is that of the unknown. Therefore, familiarity becomes a useful weapon against worry. Gathering some basic information helps answer those tough questions and provides a foundation for the later stages.
Stage 3- Preparation– The individual is ready to make the change. They have accepted that what they are doing is unhealthy and that it is doing more harm than good. At this point in the cycle, the individual may have taken small steps already, but this is where they set up a plan of action.
Example- The overweight person picks up a few pamphlets they see in the doctor’s waiting room as they are leaving their appointment. When they get home, they research several local gyms. They go to the gym and meet with the staff for a tour. The individual signs up for a monthly membership, and they set up an appointment with a dietician.
How to move out of the preparation stage- Foremost, outline the plan. Write it out. Set an agenda. Put it in a planner. Do whatever is necessary to draw up the schematic for your plan visually or cognitively. Build yourself up to taking action. Once it has been outlined, start setting up the plan before carrying it out. This is also the stage where I recommend taking small steps and not going all in. Typically, when someone has the “just do it” mentality, they become overwhelmed quickly and fall backwards/ricochet between earlier stages. Set up appointments. Do more in-depth research. Put the steps into place before you climb.
Stage 4- Action- The individual is actively involved in taking the necessary steps for change. They might still be hesitant to follow through on the change. This stage is known for having the highest risk of relapse (Department of Health, 2004). The individual will likely experiment with several different strategies before finding the ones that best works for them.
Example- The overweight individual slowly replaces junk food they ate with healthier alternatives. They take into consideration the recommendations the dietician provided during the consultation. They have also started attending the gym three days a week with hopes of increasing it to four or five times a week in the next month or two.
How to move out of the action stage- The action stage is likely the most difficult stage for many people because they often expect immediate results in the matter of only a few weeks. This stage typically lasts around six months though (Sholl, 2011). During this time, the individual must incorporate realistic expectations and build up momentum to the larger goals. The first few weeks could end up being a time of experimentation, finding what techniques work and do not work. Expect progress, not perfection. As the person begins to incorporate new habits to replace the old ones, the changes will build upon themselves. This stepwise approach will allow small steps to make a huge change.
Support is crucial during this stage as well. Having others around will provide emotional and physical support during tough times. They can also help you check in with yourself and hold you accountable. Also, do not forget to conduct periodic self-evaluations to compare your present self to when you first started.
Stage 5- Maintenance– The individual has successfully addressed obstacles that may have prevented the change from taking place. The change has taken hold and become part of everyday routine. Individuals can still slip up at this point, but can often get back on track with ease.
Example- We now have a gym rat on our hands. The individual now goes to the gym four to five times a week on average. They now regularly eat around 2,000 calories a day. They meet with the dietician once a month. As a result, their cholesterol levels are slightly high, but no longer require medical intervention. Their sugar levels are back to normal.
How to maintain a change- Keep doing what you have been doing. By this point, we see the benefits. The challenge most often experienced in this stage is complacency. Remind yourself that those actions are what you got where you wanted to be and will keep you there. If you find yourself growing bored with the change, look for opportunities to expand and apply your newfound knowledge. Continue to challenge yourself.
It’s time to change how you think about change.
-The Caring Counselor
Department of Health. (2004). The Stages of Change Model. In Module 9: working with young people on AOD issues: learner’s workbook. Commonwealth of Australia.
Sholl, J. (2011, November). The Stages of Change. Retrieved December 29, 2017, from Experience Life: https://experiencelife.com/article/the-stages-of-change/