The culture in the United States can lean towards extremes—especially around the holiday season. During the holidays, we overspend, overeat, and overcommit our time. So it feels rather natural when January comes around to want to tighten the reins through our New Year's resolutions.
For many, January is considered an opportunity to start fresh. Many see it as a chance to change personal behaviors or habits that no longer serve them. But, unfortunately for many New Years hopefuls, 80% of New Year's resolutions fail.
Why? At the foundation of New Year's resolutions is our wish to implement change in our lives. Implementing real behavioral changes is a process and rarely (if ever) happens overnight. To do so, we must understand what change is and how to cultivate it successfully.
The Nature of Change
Change isn't just hard—it's scary. We cling to our current habits because, on a subconscious level, we fear the unknown. If we don't know what will happen to us, it's hard to commit to something long term.
But change is one of life's constants. Impermanence is a fact. We can and should expect things to change—including ourselves. Yet we resist change, even when we plan for and desire it.
So how do we create a situation where we can successfully implement change in our lives? Understanding the stages of change is an excellent first step.
According to psychologist James O. Prochaska, change is a multi-stage process. In his theory, the Transtheoretical Model of Behavior Change, there are six different stages of change that a person must undergo to establish a new habit.
- Precontemplation. This is the "not ready" stage. Individuals within this stage do not have any plans to change yet and are unaware that their behavior is problematic.
Example: Freddy is not aware that he has gained weight until his wife mentions it.
- Contemplation. This is the "getting ready" stage. Individuals within this stage are waking up to the idea that they would like to change and begin examining the pros and cons of their continued actions.
Example: Freddy begins contemplating his weight gain and the advantages and disadvantages of beginning the weight loss process.
- Preparation. This is the "ready" stage. Individuals within this stage have decided to take action in the immediate future to make a change.
Example: Freddy buys a book on weight loss and joins a gym.
- Action. Individuals within this stage have begun to implement actions and have made modifications to their behavior.
Example: Freddy now has a new schedule that includes working out a couple of times a week and eating more vegetables
- Maintenance. Individuals within this stage have successfully sustained their behavioral change for at least six months and are working to prevent relapse.
Example: Freddy has been working out now for eight months. He still gets temped to reach for a candy bar when he feels stressed, but he resists.
- Termination. Individuals have crossed a threshold and will not return to their old habit.
Example: Freddy changed his eating and lifestyle habits over a year ago now. He understands the benefits and is proud of what he's done. He couldn't imagine going back to his old habits.
Understanding each stage and its purpose allows us to better identify where we are in the process of change and what is required to graduate to the next level.
How to Keep New Year's Resolutions
Of course, it would be too simple and not very instructive if we simply explained change as a six-stage process and sent you on your way. Successfully implementing change is much more complicated than developing awareness of its structure—though, this does help.
When looking to implement lasting change, it's essential to establish an ecosystem of support to help focus on your goal. Here are a few tips for doing so.
- Focus on one change at a time. Making any change is hard, but trying to implement multiple changes at once could derail your efforts altogether. If you know you want to quit smoking and lose weight in the New Year, choose one of them to focus on first. Keep things manageable and reasonable for yourself.
- Create a support system. Motivation is one of the most crucial components to change. We don't change unless we feel motivated to do so. Things like vision boards and daily affirmations can remind you why you got started and help you stay excited and focused on your goal. Talking to your friends, family, and therapist about your goal can help them support you on your journey as well.
- Celebrate your progress. Create a timeline for achieving your goal and mark milestones along the way. As you reach each milestone, celebrate in some way. This will create an incentive for staying focused and moving forward.
- Be kind to yourself. Nobody is perfect! Shame and guilt are unproductive and can make it more difficult for you to reach your goals. Be gentle with yourself as you figure it out and take it day by day.
Change is both difficult and inevitable. If we can recognize this, we can better prepare ourselves for success.