Change and the New Year

I’m not a massive fan of making New Year’s Resolutions. Mostly I’m not a fan because I’m pretty good at failing at them. And I hate failing at things.  But I try not to beat myself up too much about it because as anyone who has ever made and succeeded at - or broken - a New Year’s Resolution is probably aware, behaviour change is really, really, really difficult stuff. Making any sort of substantial changes to behaviour is rarely simple and requires a bucket load of commitment, time, effort and feelings.

There’s a couple of reasons why I don’t think New Year’s Resolutions work particularly well for me and uncannily enough there’s also a nifty psychological theory to explain behaviour change and why the ideas I have for my new life on the 31st December don’t ever really eventuate.

One of the most widely studied and acknowledged approaches to change is aptly known as the ‘Stages of Change’ model. It was introduced in the late 1970’s by researchers James Prochaska and Carlo DiClemente who were studying ways to help people quit smoking. Since then this model has helped millions of people cease smoking, but has also helped individuals alter pretty much every other sort of behaviour too. From increasing healthy eating habits to reducing procrastination to ceasing periodic episodes of binge watching old episodes of Beverly Hills 90210.  

In this model, change occurs gradually and relapses to old behaviours are considered an inevitable (and unashamedly natural) part of the process of making a lifelong change. People are often unwilling or resistant to change during the early stages, but eventually develop a proactive and committed approach to changing a behaviour.                                       

This model acknowledges that behaviour change occurs over a continuum and that there are six discrete stages that an individual passes through when making any intentional behavioural or lifestyle change. Each stage is associated with particular thoughts, feelings and behaviours related to the new change.

Stage 1 – Precontemplation

The earliest stage of change is known as precontemplation. During this stage, individuals are not really considering a change. We might feel resigned to our current state of being or believe we have no control over our behaviour. Maybe we’re aware of the consequences of our behaviour but are unwilling to change.

Here change is not really on our radar all that much. But it’s still a good time to think about particular behaviours – have I tried to change this behaviour in the past? Could it become problematic in the future? What would have to happen for me to consider this behaviour a problem? Just because we don’t immediately want something to change doesn’t mean we should hold up on the self-analysis and introspection!

Stage 2 – Contemplation

During this stage, people generally become more and more aware of the potential benefits of making a change, but the costs tend to stand out more. For example, I know there a lot of potentially harmful chemicals in Diet Coke, but I really, really, really love the buzz I get from it. Hello ambivalence! Because of this uncertainty, the contemplation stage of change can last months or years, and some people might even remain here forever.

In this stage of change it can be helpful to weigh up the pros and cons of changing a behaviour and identify any possible barriers to change. Also, what sort of things could help me make this change? Whilst I'm not acting on anything yet, I am thinking a bit more deeply about it.

Stage 3 – Preparation

The focus of this stage is on strengthening commitment and undertaking the planning necessary for initiating the new action. There are a lot of decisions to be made here and the main task is to develop a plan for action that is sound, feasible and reasonable for the person to implement. Ambivalence might still be visiting here, but there are some concrete steps in place towards behaviour change.

In this stage it can be really useful to gather as much information about how to change the behaviour as possible. Prepare a plan of action. Find outside resources of support. Write down the specific goals. Here I do all the little things that will make my new behaviour as easy as possible to transition in to.

Stage 4 – Action

This is where the fun starts and the NEW behaviour begins. All the thinking and decisions of the preparation stage are put into place here and actual overt behavioural change starts to happen. Reinforcement and support are pretty important here, because trying out this new behaviour is really hard and it’s really easy in this stage to fall back on the old behaviours, so motivations, resources and progress should be reinforced to refresh commitment and belief in change.

Stage 5 – Maintenance

The maintenance phase of the Stage of Change Model involves successfully avoiding the old behaviours and keeping up the new ones. During this stage, people become more confident that they can continue with their change. When a person has consolidated and maintained the behavioural and cognitive changes they are said to make a permanent exit from the stages of change model. At this point their self-efficacy is high, the energy required to maintain the changes is reduced and there is a change of focus to other aspects of their lives.

Stage 6 – Relapse

Normal human behaviour dictates that most people will require several attempts before achieving long-term behaviour change. A person can relapse from any of the previous stages and then go back to another stage. For example, we might be in the maintenance phase and then relapse and find ourselves back in the contemplation stage of the cycle. Sometimes we may have just a minor slip or lapse, and may return to the stage of change we were already in. While relapses can be difficult, and can leave us feeling disappointed and frustrated, the best thing to do is identify what happened to set off the lapse, reaffirm our motivation, plan of action, and commitment to our  goals and make plans for how we will deal with any future temptations.

I know how people change. I’ve witnessed many clients change their behaviour patterns time and time again with great success. I think that one of the most hopeful and positive parts of the human experience is the capacity for change. So, why am I a bit anti-New Year’s Resolutions and why haven’t I been successful in the past?

Here is where I can run into problems with resolutions.  For me often they have been about what I felt I ‘should’ do and not what I really wanted to do. I definitely think I should stop drinking Diet Coke, but have I fully moved out of my ambivalence surrounding this yet? Have I done the necessary preparation to figure out  how I will get my afternoon reward if my Diet Coke is no longer there? No. And I don’t want the added pressure of feeling like a failure in 3 weeks time.

Secondly, the cycle of change is really, really difficult. I’ve made some changes in the past that have been such hard work and required so much time, effort, energy and heartache. In order to succeed at making those changes I had to be so incredibly motivated and committed. I do believe that the new stationery that the 1st January provides might bring an initial burst of motivation, but to make it through to maintenance stage and permanent exit, a really, really deep commitment and confidence about this new behaviour is required. And that needs to come from a place stronger than new stationery.

Thirdly, I don’t think the timing’s ever been that suitable for me. In the past I think I’ve gotten through the cheer and festiveness of Christmas and on New Year’s Eve had an incredibly rushed thought about my resolution. Not only am I not putting enough thought or preparation into it, but chances are my wonderful holiday is also just about to end. Not only am I about to face the harsh realities of the real world again, but I’ve added making a whole new behaviour change to that harsh reality. As if that’s going to work.

And so while it’s taken me a while, there is no ground shattering New Year’s Resolution from me for 2016. However, that’s not to say that at some point during the year I will begin reconsidering the consequences of my Diet Coke consumption and start to work through my ambivalence about this. Or maybe I will resolve to set a resolution for next year. One that takes into account the planning, preparation and decisions required prior to January 1st so that at the beginning of 2017 I am committed and ready to go.

Luckily for me, I know that confident, committed and wonderful changes can occur on any day of the year.

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