This is the time of year where we tend to welcome change.
We usually let others know what we want to change, for the sake of accountability, and then we begin the endeavor.
Typically, we begin with great enthusiasm and intentions. Unfortunately, all too often, we give it up after a few weeks.
Why do so many of us — an estimated 80% — throw in the towel so early?
Well, there’s at least one theory out there that explains this. It’s called the Transtheoretical Model, or the Stages of Change Model.
The true problem may be that despite the new year representing a fresh start, you just weren’t in the right stage to make the long-term change at the time.
In other words, it doesn’t mean you’ll never get to where you want to be, it just means you weren’t ready to launch into it on Jan. 1.
Some people are only ready to make a change after they’ve hit rock bottom, or a major life event occurs. Those situational changes can include a divorce, a diagnosis or finding out that you’re having a baby.
For others, being ready to change can come on their own terms or by being inspired by someone else.
In any event, there are five stages of change:
Precontemplation: Having no intention to make a change in the next six months.
Most people in this stage don’t realize they need to change or will defend their bad habit and focus on the cons of the change, instead of the pros.
There is no motivation to change until there is a change in life circumstances or they become more conscious of their actions.
Contemplation: Having the intention to make a change within six months.
Here, people see that their habits are problematic, and they weigh the pros and cons of change equally, though are still hesitant about making a change.
They’re more receptive to hearing others’ stories and seeking help.
Preparation: Ready to make a change in the next 30 days.
People here believe the change will improve their livelihood, and start taking small steps toward the change, such as touring a gym, looking up support groups, or reading self-help books.
This is the “research” or “information gathering” stage, and they believe the pros outweigh the cons.
Action: The change has been implemented within the past six months with intentions to continue.
Maintenance: The change has been sustained for six months or more.
Here, you maintain the habit to prevent relapsing to a previous stage.
This stage will last as long as necessary, up to several years.
In one study on smoking, 43% returned to smoking after 12 months of quitting, but five years later, the relapse rate was 7%.
People in the maintenance stage still need support, even if they feel confident in sustaining the change.
One of the main issues when it comes to setting goals, whether for the new year or any time of year, is that people often skip the preparation stage.
Going from contemplation to action can set one up for failure because the individual failed to thoroughly research what it will take to change his or her lifestyle, such as what’s required to implement it, what sacrifices will be necessary and what resources are available.
It’s important to consider challenges and ways to overcome them before taking action to avoid a long-term relapse.
For instance, if you’re trying to cook more at home, what’s the plan if you get stuck at work?
Will you meal prep each evening prior to prevent the temptation of stopping for fast food?
Will you delegate meal tasks to your partner or older children, if you need help?
Be sure you have strategies in place to minimize setbacks.
Also, if you do stop for fast food, it doesn’t mean you have to drop your attempt to change. It just means you had an off day and you will get back to your healthier routine the next day.
It’s important to realize that relapse is a normal part of the process.
It’s not the relapse that determines your success, it’s your response to it.
Accept in advance that there will be bad days, and go easy on yourself when something takes you off course every now and then.
Also, keep in mind there are some limitations to the stages of change theory, as there’s plenty of gray area related to any habit change.
For example, there are people who may want to make a change, but they are thwarted by their environment. Living in a food desert, for instance, makes it difficult to access fresh food.
The change theory also fails to address the challenges of trying to tackle more than one behavior change at the same time.
Regardless, we probably see ourselves in our own health journeys within these stages, and the same goes for our loved ones, too.
If you’ve felt frustrated having the same conversation about habit changes with a loved one, this theory could explain why there hasn’t been much progress.
So how do you make a habit stick?
Even if you finally feel ready and you did all the research, how do you take that leap into action, make it to maintenance, and then stick to it?
Here are some suggestions from the American Heart Association:
First, identify the cue that causes the bad habit.
It could be as simple as walking past a vending machine that you automatically stop at throughout the workday, or eating chips whenever you watch TV in the living room.
Once you realize the cue, you must disrupt it, such as taking a different path in your office building or watching TV in a different room that you don’t associate the chips with.
Replace the bad behavior with a good one instead of just ending the bad behavior by itself.
The new path around your office can now be a cue for having a healthy snack when you return to your desk, whether it’s a handful of nuts or some grapes.
It’s important to keep things simple because you want your brain to eventually take on the new habit where it goes into “autopilot” mode. This takes some time (sometimes as much as two months), so make the transition easy by avoiding complex replacement habits.
Also, keep in mind that even your bad habits were not second nature in the beginning.
To give yourself a chance for success, replace habit cues so your brain associates the new signal with an improved habit.
Make sure you have laid the groundwork for success by having strategies to address relapses. And, be faithful to building new habits.
If you do that, the successful days will turn into months, and then into years.
Here’s wishing you a 2024 that provides ample opportunities for you to embark on bringing the changes you want to see in your life.
Shari Bresin is the Family & Consumer Science Agent for the University of Florida/Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Cooperative Extension Pasco County. Pasco County Extension.
Published January 10, 2024