Pardon me for starting to sound like a broken record as it must seem that I talk about resolutions – and sticking to them – every other week. To be honest I’m not a big fan of New Year’s resolutions anyway – it’s just my job to help people stick to them. And they are hard. Hard on my clients, the people that I am trying to help and hard on me. In this article I’m going to explain why it is so hard.
But before I even get to that, I’d like to extrapolate a little on ‘hard’ and what that means. Because the word ‘hard’ conjures up so many negative associations in most people, I find that I actively try to avoid using the word with my clients. But a hard task and an unenjoyable task should not be always mutually inclusive - you can have one without the other. When I say the word hard, to either myself or my clients, I don’t mean that whatever task we are going to undertake together is going to be unenjoyable. I find that so many people try to avoid doing things that are hard when the road to success is usually going to be very enjoyable - though certainly difficult at times. Certainly the sense of accomplishment when we attempt something hard and succeed is worth all of the effort that it took to get there.
But I digress. Most behaviour change attempts fail because they are hard, but also because change is only possible when we see the value in changing. This is one of the reasons why New Year’s resolutions are somewhat doomed to fail, because rather than coming to the realisation that we need to change in an organic way, we force the process on ourselves because we have a sense of time that says that January 1 is a monumentally different day than December 31.
How many times have you thought to yourself that you need to stop smoking? Or drinking? Or eating a packet of tim-tams at 11:00pm? How many times have you actually thought of the reason that you want to do it? Have you thought about why you are engaging in these behaviours in the first place? Are you motivated to change your behaviour because your head and heart tells you it is time, or are you doing it because society, your friends and family say that you should?
Whilst it might sound painfully obvious, successful change requires you to be ready to change. You have to be absolutely convinced that it is in your best interests to change. You have to very clearly see the benefits of engaging in change and objectively note the pro’s outweighing the con’s. You have to truly believe it is worth it – otherwise, why would you bother?
There are 6 key stages of change, and depending on which stage you are at you can get an idea of how likely you are going to be in succeeding with your behaviour change journey. Knowing which stage you are at can help you to successfully plan and map out your journey.
Pre-Contemplation – You don’t know what you need to know and aren’t really considering making a change. At this stage there is little chance at all of any goal being achieved.
Contemplation – Behaviour change seems like a good idea on face value, but you are still weighing up the pro’s and con’s. ‘I’ll feel better and lose a few kilos if I stop drinking every night. But how am I going to unwind? And I sure do sleep better after a bottle of wine’. Again, at this stage the chances of successful change are slim.
Preparation – You have decided that enough is enough and that it is time to act. Change is important, you want to do it for you and are cognisant of the benefits. However, you don’t know how to start the process, or if you do have a plan, haven’t taken the first step. Most people will be at this stage.
Action – Now the ball is rolling. You are getting help, have a plan, are following the plan and should be seeing objective results moving towards where you want to be. This is a great place to be and the sense of accomplishment and pride at this stage are enormous.
Maintenance – You have achieved your goal and are working hard to stay within the new found health parameters that you always wanted to get to. However, in my experience, this is the hardest stage. The body, and mind, has a set point and will always attempt to return it to that set point. If you have been a drinker for 30 years and have successfully abstained for 3 months this absolutely does not mean that you will not relapse. I have seen clients, family and friends lose focus and relapse into habits that were dropped 18 months before. You must keep working hard at this stage to avoid this.
Relapse – A very natural step in the behaviour change process. You have regressed back to the old behaviours that you were trying to change. The good news is that like the path that has been walked before, we are more likely to walk it comfortably and without a slip up the second time. The chances of success after a relapse are greater than at the start of the journey.
The stages of change model above provide us with some context for why changes have not been successful in the past. Sadly, most people attribute unsuccessful change as a failure of themselves and this type of thinking will discourage people from attempting to make change again in the future. A better way of looking at unsuccessful change is that perhaps you just weren’t ready. And as mentioned, if you truly weren’t ready than your attempt at change was always doomed to fail.
The point of this essay? I thought you’d never ask. To help you with your change journey I have provided 5 tips below that you can use to help you make lasting change.
1. Only change when you are ready to and work out where you are in the change model and devise a plan according to where you think you are.
2. Weigh up the pro’s and con’s and ask yourself what the benefits of behaviour change will look like.
3. Be realistic and don’t overreach with your goal because though whilst relapse is a part of change, don’t set yourself up to fail.
4. Appreciate that relapse is not failure and that it is a normal part of the behaviour change journey.
5. Get support from significant others because whilst the road less travelled is hard enough to traverse on our own, we will always walk it more comfortably with help. This is where your Exercise Physiologist can come in useful...
Most importantly, don't feel overwhelmed. The journey should be fun and rewarding.
Yours In Health!