For many years James Prochaska, a well-known psychologist, studied people trying to change their behaviour. He observed that there is a change process that involves moving through six different stages. Prochaska noticed that people had problems changing a habit when they missed some of the stages in this process.
Learning about the process of change and understanding the stage you are in can help you break an unhealthy habit. In other words, there is nothing wrong with you. You aren’t weak or lazy. Maybe you just tried to take action when you were still at a stage where you were considering change. Health professionals tend to take the approach that if they simply tell you to change, you will just do it. Even if you successfully change for a few weeks, you may have trouble maintaining your healthy behaviour if you are not really ready.
As you read the descriptions of the six stages of change, think about which point you were at when you tried to change a behaviour.
If you don’t see a problem with your behaviour, you’re not likely to change. Perhaps you aren’t aware of the risk to your health if you continue a certain habit.
Your doctor is always after you to get more exercise. Doesn’t he understand that you’re on your feet all day? You get enough exercise at work. Besides, you wouldn’t be caught dead wearing spandex at the gym.
What if your doctor took a different approach? He explains that your blood glucose has been steadily rising, a warning that you could develop diabetes. Your doctor tells you recent research shows you can prevent getting diabetes by increasing your activity and losing some weight. This requires more continuous activity than you get at work. The doctor assures you that you don’t need to join a club or go jogging. He suggests that once you’re ready, you can discuss some activity options.
To resolve this stage, you need some facts about the consequences of inactivity. It helps to hear what the doctor means by ‘more exercise.’ You may not be ready to jump in yet, but you might move to the next stage and consider changing.
You know the benefits of a healthy lifestyle but just can’t seem to take action. For every reason to change an unhealthy habit, there seems to be another that keeps you from stopping. There are so many excuses.
On a typical day you skip breakfast so you can beat the traffic to work. You’re busy, so you pick up a burger to eat at your desk. The pressure is on. You need to stay late. A cola and chocolate bar help you deal with the stress you are feeling. You get home just in time to take the kids to hockey. You’ve missed supper and eat a hot dog at the arena. As you crawl into bed you tell yourself, as you do every night, that tomorrow you’ll try to eat better and get some exercise. The next day, you discuss your frustrations with a co-worker. He tells you that he felt the same way. He once bought a treadmill and a diet book and thought he’d change his lifestyle. The changes lasted about two weeks before the treadmill turned into a clothes rack and the diet book ended up in the garbage. Shortly after that, while on vacation, your co-worker said he thought about his life. He realized that although his family and his health were very important to him, he was devoting most of his time to work. He also figured out that his tiredness and food cravings were his response to the stress level at his job. When he returned to work he began sharing more of his duties and leaving work on time. His stress level decreased, he could enjoy healthy meals with his family and he had more energy.
To take the next step towards successful change often requires some soul searching. What is most important to you? Are you giving your time and attention to your true priorities? What’s in the way of starting healthy behaviours or giving up bad habits??
Identify the barriers that get in the way of changing, such as lack of time. List the pros and cons of making a change. There are always reasons for our bad habits, but see if you can make the list of benefits longer.
You are now sure that changing a particular habit is the best thing for you. In fact, you can see making some specific changes in the next month. After brainstorming about the pros and cons of eating fast food suppers several times a week, your family has decided that there would be many advantages to eating more meals at home. Making healthier food choices is a goal.
First, you meet with a dietitian to discuss the nutrition needs of your family. You join her on a grocery store shopping tour to find out which foods to buy, including healthier convenience foods. Your daughter finds some meal planning books at the library for quick, well-balanced suppers. Your family works out a schedule where each person takes a turn getting supper started. You decide to continue eating out once a week. The money you save by not eating out is put in a fund towards a family trip to Disneyland.
Setting goals and seeking out information and resources to help you achieve these goals is essential for success. Setting small, short-term goals will help. Give yourself time to make changes.
Think back to the barriers you identified in the contemplation stage. How can you overcome these roadblocks along the way to change? Get help and support from others. Plan to reward yourself for the changes you make.
You are putting your plan into action. You have changed your behaviour for several months now. It’s still not easy. You have to watch that you don’t slip back into your old habits.
You and your neighbour have been going for a brisk walk five nights a week all summer. You feel more energetic and you’re sleeping better. Most of the time you look forward to your walk, but some nights you are busy and you have missed going. Soon it will be getting dark and cold in the evening. You agree to switch to walking in the morning and you’ve checked out mall walking programs for days with miserable weather.
Try to think ahead to situations that might make it hard to stay with your plan and come up with solutions. You realize that it is normal to have trouble meeting your goals all the time. You don’t get discouraged; you keep trying. You share your commitment for making a change with others and seek their support.
You have successfully changed a behaviour for at least six months. You are still motivated and want to keep on track.
You and your neighbour have continued to walk over the winter. You fell off the wagon once, when your neighbour went on holiday for two weeks and you only walked three times. You’ve learned something about yourself. You need company when you are exercising. You also realize that you would like to have more variety in your activity plan. You join a line-dancing club.
To stay focused, reflect on what has helped you meet your goals and build on these strengths. Don’t let yourself get bored.
Sometimes you slip back to your old habits. This is a normal part of the change process.
You’re finding it hard to get up early in the winter and have started skipping breakfast again. You felt better when you ate before work and even lost some weight. You try taking fruit and yogurt to eat during your morning coffee break. This works - you’re back on track!
Figure out which stage you slid back to and try the recommended strategies. Think about how good you felt when you changed your behaviour. Take a different approach. See the relapse as an opportunity to learn more about how you can change successfully.
Change is a process. Carefully considering and planning change, rather than leaping straight into action, means you will have greater success changing a habit for good.