It’s one thing to make a change in your life, it’s quite another to keep it going. We spend so much time talking about changing old and initiating new behaviours that we miss discussing the real challenge.
For most of us, starting something new isn’t all that hard, just look at all the new faces at the local gym in January. Come February, many of them are no longer there. Anyone who has started a new diet or quit smoking only to have a setback will understand that after a few weeks of the change, reality sets in. The honeymoon of change is over.
In the last blog I focused on how important a person’s confidence is, but it’s not the only thing. Confidence will be the catalyst for change, while proper planning will be the foundation for maintaining that change.
At university, I teach students about the Stages of Change; a behaviour change theory based on the process smokers go through when trying to quit. This theory recognizes five distinct stages along the pathway of change: precontemplation (unwilling to change), contemplation (thinking about change), preparation (planning to change), action (recently undergone change) and maintenance (underwent change a while ago).
For any type of change, people will generally go through these five phases. That’s not to say that we spend an equal amount of time in each of these stages. For someone who is not exercising, he/she may spend months or years in the precontemplation or contemplation stages, bouncing back and forth, before making any concrete effort in preparation for exercising, and when he/she does, it could be a short time to action.
Some decisions, like whether to go see that movie or not, can be quite quick, but we still think of the pros and cons of the change (this is the contemplation stage- is the movie likely to be good and worth the time/money?), prepare to go (preparation) and then go (action). It all happens so fast we don’t recognize the process.
We can use the Stages like a roadmap to guide us through the process of change. If you have no desire to change (precontemplation), there isn’t much to do. We know that pushing someone in precontemplation does no good and may only further ingrain the current behaviour (Ever tried nagging a family member or friend into doing something he/she didn’t want to do? Not always pleasant.)
If you’re thinking about change (contemplation), this is where the cons (bad side) of changing outweigh the pros (good side). I find writing down the pros and cons helpful. For the person who wishes to have a healthier diet, he/she may be concerned it will cost more, taste bad or will require learning new cooking methods. Some of these concerns can be quite real, while others may be misconceptions (healthy eating doesn’t need to cost more).
On the other hand, when people tell me they want to change their diet or exercise to improve their health (the pro side of changing). I ask them for more personal reasons for change. Often people will tell us what we want to hear or what may be the right answer, but health really is a poor motivator for change. I don’t exercise because I may live until 85 instead of 82, or that it may keep me out of the hospital 20% less. That’s too abstract for me to understand, and yes, that may be why the health profession advocates exercise but I exercise because I feel good doing it, plus I have more energy throughout the day. These are things that are meaningful to me. Find what is meaningful to you.
Where the Stages of Change helps in the long-term is in the preparation and action stages, which really focus on sustained change. The preparation stage comes once a person has decided to make a change. This is where all the planning comes in. What will my exercise program look like? How will I shop for foods for my new diet? What supports do I have help me (family, friends)? Write your plan down.
One should also focus on what are called high-risk situations. Circumstances in which keeping up with the new behaviour may be tough. If you plan to start walking daily, will it matter if it rains, or snows? If so, what will you do? Maybe missing a day is okay but if you live in an area with a long winter, you may want to plan an alternative like walking on a treadmill or at a shopping mall.
The biggest fear that people undergoing a new nutrition plan have is what to do when going to a party or out for dinner. Again, one night out of 30 probably isn’t a big deal and no need to get concerned about, but if you are doing the social circuit every weekend, it may derail your plans.
Having people to call and talk to when you stumble can help, and social support is important for our health and wellbeing. It’s quite common for someone trying to curb an addiction like smoking or eating sugary foods to have at least one peer to call to help them through times when temptation may get the better of them.
The action and maintenance stages are similar in that these occur once you’ve started the new behaviour. The difference is the action stage recognizes that early on in the change process, it is easier to quit or relapse (like the people who stop exercising in February) than later on once you have established the new behaviour into your daily life. This is where identifying high-risk situations and planning during the preparation stage comes in to help.
It’s a bit arbitrary when the action stage finishes and the maintenance stage begins (the theory says six months). I like to think once a few months have passed and potentially one or two of those high-risk situations have occurred, then you’re in the maintenance phase in which your new behaviour has become part of your life, and you no longer need to think of it as a new behaviour.
Next week I’ll continue with how to effectively set goals to help keep you going.