Are you ready to change?

Sunday, 7 February 2016 - 1:10pm

The 5 Stages of Change Model is very useful to outline the series of stages we go through to change our lifestyle habits. Changes do not happen in one step, but through a series of distinct stages. Just realising the stage of change you’re in may be helpful for you to succeed.

In this stage, we’ve either never thought about needing to change a particular behaviour or we’ve never thought about it seriously. Often we receive ideas about things we might need to change from family, friends, doctors, but react negatively by reflex. However, if we can find our way to react more openly to these messages, we might find some value in them. Remember, they aren’t sent with the intent to harm.

Here we’ve begun to actively think about the need to change a behaviour. This stage can last anywhere from a moment to an entire lifetime. What exactly causes us to move from this stage to the next is often the change of an idea (“exercise is important”) into a deeply held belief (“I need to exercise”). What exactly causes this change, however, is different for everyone and largely unpredictable. What we think will produce this change isn’t often what does. This is the stage in which obstacles to change tend to rear their ugly heads. If you get stuck here, as many often do, seek another way to think about the value of the change you’re contemplating. Remember, it’s all about finding and activating a motivating belief.

In this stage, we begin preparing ourselves mentally and often physically for action. The smoker may throw out all their cigarettes. The couch potato may join a gym. We pick quit days. We schedule start days. This mustering of a determination is the culmination of the decision to change and fuels the engine that drives you to your goal.

And then we start. We wake up and take a power walk. Or go to the gym. Or stop smoking. In this stage you begin to find alternatives to bad habits and replace them. Begin to visualise how you will look and feel when you have made the desired change.  It is often hard for people to imagine themselves at goal until this point.  It is also important to pre-plan rewards for yourself as you achieve short-term goals.

This stage is where you continue your commitment to your new behaviour. Because initiating a new behaviour usually seems like the hardest part of the process of change, we often fail to adequately prepare for this stage. Without a doubt, maintaining a new behaviour is the most challenging part of any behaviour change. This is the stage most people omit with disastrous results!  Your work is not done just because you have achieved your goal - it is just beginning! Keep a list handy of the negative aspects of your old problem-causing behaviour. Continue to remind yourself why you are doing this. Note the difficulties you have overcome to get here. Constantly renew your commitment and find new challenges.

The final stage of any process leading to behaviour change is one extremely difficult to avoid: relapse. Though it may sometimes be inevitable, if you train yourself to view relapse as only one more stage in the process of change rather than as a failure, you’re much more likely to be able to quickly return to your desired behaviour. Alternatively, when you allow yourself to view relapse as a complete failure, that assessment typically becomes self-fulfilling. Just because you fell off the diet wagon during a holiday doesn’t mean you’re doomed to return permanently to poor eating habits - unless you think you are and allow yourself to become discouraged, in which case you will. Long term weight gain or loss, it turns out, isn’t correlated to calorie intake on any one day but rather to calorie intake over a period of time, which essentially means if you overeat here or there on a few days only, it won’t actually affect your long-term ability to lose weight.

The same is true, in fact, with any behaviour you want to change. Never let a few days, or even weeks, of falling back into bad habits discourage you from fighting to re-establish the good habits you want. Always remember: none of us was born with any habits at all. They were all learned, and can all, therefore, be unlearned. The question is: how badly do you really want to change?

From eating healthier, exercising regularly, quitting smoking or getting more organised, most of us have a list of behaviours we’d like to begin (or end). Even though many are able to succeed in making desired changes in the short term, most revert to their original behaviours in the long term. What, then, are effective ways to change our behaviour?