Are you the type of person that looks forward to the new year? Do you enjoy the time to reflect on the past year’s successes and mistakes? Do you relish taking the time to plan for the upcoming year? Or is the new year a source of anxiety? A reminder of failed or forgotten past resolutions.
Whether or not you are a fan of making New Year resolutions, we all get motivated to make changes at one point or another in our life. According to behavioral psychologists the stages that we go through when making changes goes something like this.
Contemplation. You start by simply contemplating a change that you want to make in your life. The thoughts start out as general ideas such as: “I really need to get my finances in order”, or “I should start eating better”, or “I want to do more volunteer work.” Notice the words “should”, “need”, and “want” in these thoughts. These words often indicate lack of full commitment to making the change; it is still just an idea.
Preparation. When you begin to fully commit to change, you set your intention or goal and start planning how you will accomplish that goal. For example, you move from the general idea that “I should start eating better” to a more concrete intention like “I am going to cut out junk food and eat a whole food, plant-based diet”. The mental switch from thinking “I should” to “I am” or “I will” may seem small, but it is a powerful first step toward making a change. To further prepare to make this change you might first identify 2-3 junk foods that you plan to cut out of your diet and then read a book about implementing a whole food, plant-based diet.
At this point it is also important to think about why you want to make this change. What is your motivation? In the above example of dietary change, is your motivation to lose weight, to improve overall energy and health, or are you making the change for environmental reasons? Maybe it is a combination of these things. Regardless, why is as important as what, when preparing to make a major life change.
Action. The next step is to actively modify the behavior. During this phase you are no longer simply thinking about making changes to your diet, you are actively eating differently than before. You are in the action phase even when you have only taken a small step. For example, your goal may have been to completely change your diet from a traditional Western diet to a whole food, plant-based diet, but you started with simply replacing your chips at lunch with some carrot sticks and hummus dip. In taking this small step you have not yet completely met your goal, but you are on your way.
These small changes should be viewed as personal wins. Small wins increase the confidence you need to make additional positive changes. Use this momentum to stay motivated. Each week add a new small change that gets you closer to your overall goal. Before you know it you will have made a dramatic change.
Maintenance. During the maintenance phase you are successfully sustaining the changes. Your new behavior, following a whole food plant-based diet, has replaced the old behavior of eating a typical Western diet. Keep in mind that the early stage of making any change is the hardest because the new behavior has not yet become an ingrained habit. You may regularly want to reach for that bag of chips rather than the carrots and hummus. Keep reminding yourself why this change is important to you. Focus on the benefits of making the new behavior a lasting part of who you are.
Relapse. After making changes, it is common to fall back into old patterns of behavior. This is to be expected and not a failure of will. You will likely cycle through relapse, action, and maintenance multiple times before the new behavior becomes a natural habit. Each time you fall back to your old habits, gently steer yourself back on course. For example, if you gave in and ate that bag of chips you swore off of today, simply go back to the carrots and hummus tomorrow. Avoid the temptation to throw your hands up and give up on eating the healthier diet altogether. Small constant corrections will work better for you than taking an all-or-nothing approach.
The next time you resolve to make a change in your life, keep in mind these stages of change. Be patient with yourself as you move from one phase to the next and be prepared for the occasional relapse. Change need not be a source of anxiety. It can be highly motivating and lead to further positive change. The important thing is that we keep aspiring to a better version of ourselves without being too critical of our current self.
What are you motivated to change in the coming year? Are you still contemplating or have you started planning?