Like most self-help authors and coaches, I love New Year’s Resolutions.
Weeks ago I started asking my kids what theirs were going to be. I have a fantasy that January 1st will be THE day we launch headlong into our new-and-improved lives. I LOVE a fresh start, and there is nothing fresher than the first week in January.
But I know better.
By strongly “encouraging” my friends, family and readers to make New Year’s Resolutions, I’m failing to recognize that people don’t just make resolutions and then the next day spring into lasting action. I may wish this was possible, but research shows that it probably isn’t.
For the last four decades, behavior change researchers James Prochaska and Carlo DiClemente have written extensively about how people actually do change.
According to Prochaska and DiClemente, people change in stages. They go from not even really considering making a change, to contemplating making one, to preparing to make the change…and THEN (and only then) do they spring into action. The actual behavior change (like starting to exercise, or going on a diet) is not the first stage of change, but the fourth.
Here’s the long and the short of it: To be successful in a New Year’s Resolution, you need to be in that fourth stage of change. What stage are you in?
1.) You sorta want to make a change…in theory…but in your heart of hearts, you know you don’t intend to make that change just yet. Or maybe you don’t really want to make the change, but someone else is pressuring you to make a New Year’s Resolution. Maybe your doctor has mentioned that she’d like you to lose weight, or perhaps your husband wants you to go to church more often. You can see their point, and you aren’t entirely opposed to the idea, but…just reading this you can feel your resistance rising.
You probably know this, but you aren’t ready to make a New Year’s Resolution. If you do make one at this stage, you’ll probably fail. You’re in the first stage of change, which is called “Pre-contemplation.” Prochaska, in his latest book Changing to Thrive, details three primary reasons that people get stuck in this stage; perhaps you can recognize one of these reasons in yourself:
- You don’t know how to make the change you’d like to make.
- You’re feeling demoralized by previous attempts to make similar changes and don’t want to fail again.
- You’re in denial — you tend to defend yourself or rationalize your behavior when others suggest you make a change.
If you are at this stage of change, instead of making a New Year’s Resolution this year you’ll do better (again, according to Prochaska’s research) to make a list of all the good reasons, or “pros,” to make the change. How will you benefit? How long can you make this list of “pros”? Just start contemplating these things for now.
2.) You’re thinking about making a change, but you’re still worried about the drawbacks to doing so. Perhaps you’re considering starting a meditation practice, and you are aware of the benefits. But you also are pretty sure that you don’t have enough time to be regular about it, and your back hurts a lot when you’ve tried meditating before. Or maybe you’d like to cut back on your drinking, but you hate the idea of being the teetotaler at the party–you’re afraid people with think you’re uptight and unfun. Your doubts are keeping you from getting started.
I’m in this stage of change in thinking about cutting gluten out of my diet once and for all. I’m aware of the benefits for someone like me (I’m very sensitive to gluten — the angry rash on my face makes this quite clear) but a life without sourdough bread doesn’t quite seem worth living. Yet. Right now it’s easier for me to really think a lot about going fully gluten-free, without actually doing anything. By thinking about something (but not taking action) I feel like I actually am doing something about the rash on my face (even though I’m not). This is safe, because I don’t risk failing, given that I’m not actually doing anything to change.
If this is you, you’re in the second stage of change, “Contemplation.” Before you take action or commit to a resolution, you’ll need to deal with your list of drawbacks to the change, or the “cons” that are holding you back. If you’re worried you don’t have enough time to meditate, for example, you’ll need to convince yourself otherwise. Can you find five minutes in the morning? How can you convince yourself that this will be worth it? Finding the benefits of making a change for others can be enormously helpful in this stage. How will your friends and family benefit from your change? How can you use these benefits to assuage your fear about how others will perceive your change?
3.) You do truly intend to change, but you still feel some dread about it. You’re out of denial, in that you recognize that you really do need to change — or you’ve solved the problem of not knowing how to make a change (for example, by signing up for one of my habit creation mini-courses). Your list of benefits is longer than your list of drawbacks. The only thing you have to surmount now is fear of failure. This third stage of change is called “preparation.”
The way to move from here into action is to take an honest look at how the change you are preparing for can truly make your life better. How do you think and feel about yourself as you are right now, if you never change the behavior in question? Maybe you are often stressed, and you’re seriously thinking about getting in an exercise habit to combat this. Without more physical activity, you think of yourself as sedentary and out of shape, and you feel stressed and anxious. Now, imagine yourself having made the change you are looking for. How will you think of yourself differently? Most importantly, how will you feel?
Sometimes, on New Year’s Eve — or in life — we feel pressured to commit to changes we just aren’t ready to make. If you aren’t ready to spring into action, there’s no harm in that. Please realize that you have more options than either making a resolution (and probably failing, if you aren’t in the fourth stage of change) or doing nothing at all. All you need to do to grow is to move from one stage of change to the next!
Already made a resolution, but now it seems like you might not be ready to leap into action? Please check out my 21-day habit classes. These mini-courses are designed to help move you into the action stage of change so that you are able to cultivate a lasting habit. You’ll get real results!
Originally published at medium.com