Only five days into January, and already you've broken your New Year's resolution to (pick one) stick to a weight-loss diet; exercise more; eat better in general. And while you're not tearing your hair out over your failed attempt, that little voice inside your head is telling you, quietly but insistently, that you're inadequate or that you lack willpower—each subtle wave of accusations eroding your self-esteem.
Take heart. New Year's resolutions are typically made three years in a row before they "stick." Moreover, people who take action and fail within a month are twice as likely to succeed over the next six months as people who don't take any action at all; failure, in fact, is usually part of the equation for success. Finally, it's willpower that, by itself, is inadequate—not people who wish to change.
These are the findings of James Prochaska, PhD, a University of Rhode Island psychologist who has specialized in studying how people alter their behavior. His approach has been used successfully by such organizations as the National Cancer Institute to help people stop smoking, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism to help people with alcoholism stop drinking, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to curb behavior that leads to infection with the virus that causes AIDS.
The Stages of Change
New Year's is "an excellent time for change," says Prochaska, coauthor of Changing for Good. It "represents a new beginning" and brings with it a sense of "getting down to work" after the holidays. The problem, he explains, is that people equate change with action. Yet action, he believes, is only the fourth stage in the process of change.
Action cannot take place, Prochaska argues, unless it is preceded by the following:
- Precontemplation—feeling that the situation is hopeless or denying that there is a problem
- Contemplation—accepting that there is a problem and beginning to think seriously about changing it
- Preparation—developing a firm, detailed scheme for action
In other words, there's no such thing as making changes cold turkey, even when people think that's how they've accomplished something.
Have a Plan
The particular problem that often occurs at New Year's, Prochaska comments, has to do with the common social pressure to "do something." That makes sense because doing something, or acting, is the only stage of change that other people can see. The rest is much more internal. Bowing to that pressure, people feel "more of a 'should' rather than an 'I'm ready.'" As a result, Prochaska says, they end up unprepared without a plan for action.
"It's hard enough to accomplish something even when you have a good plan," he says. "Without a plan, forget it." He likens it to trying to get through the Boston Marathon on sheer willpower. If you haven't planned for the race by gradually increasing the number of miles you run at a time, regularly performing stretches to keep muscles loose and flexible, and eating right and getting enough sleep, then "Good luck, willpower," he says.
It's the same with, say, a weight-loss diet. Have you thought hard about what foods you might be willing to give up for a while? What foods to eat less of? Whether, if you eat out a lot, you're willing to stop looking at every restaurant lunch or dinner as a time to indulge yourself? How you're going to cope with the urge to overeat at moments of emotional distress, even distress that includes nighttime boredom? Have you tried any particular steps to see if you can live with them?
Think It Through
Even before you start planning, Prochaska says, have you thoroughly contemplated the ramifications of the change? That is, have you carefully considered the difference between "wanting" something and "being prepared to pay a price for" the thing you want? After all, Prochaska says, change is not easy. It often takes a pretty dramatic restructuring of your life. And it inevitably comes with a certain amount of anxiety because of not knowing exactly how the outcome is going to feel.
These are the steps you have to take before you can successfully take action and put willpower to work. In fact, by taking these steps, you increase your willpower because you strengthen your commitment to the change.
Now, back to your failed attempt. Don't think of it so much as a failure, Prochaska says, but rather as a lesson that you could use to figure out what you did "right" and where you need to reexamine your approach. That way, failure becomes "a learning experience" rather than a loss, "a way of recognizing that change is a process rather than an event," often with two steps forward and one step backward. Furthermore, failure provides an opportunity to recognize that willpower alone could never be expected to shoulder the entire burden of change.
Once you've thought about your attempt that didn't work, decide whether you're really ready to take action. Maybe you need more time to make a solid plan that you could fully implement by February 1. Maybe you need two or three months because you haven't really thought through all that it's going to take and aren't prepared to make the necessary lifestyle adjustments. That's okay, Prochaska says. You're still changing, even if no one else can see it.
Once you do decide you're ready for action, be as specific about your behavior change as possible. For instance, it's not enough just to say, "I'm going to lose weight." That's an outcome, not something that you do to arrive at the outcome. Better to say to yourself, "I'm going to allow myself one scoop of ice cream a night and not eat any sweets after 8 PM.," or "I'm going to walk briskly for 25 minutes a day," or whatever.
While engaging in this process, Prochaska says, you can enhance your willpower by offering yourself more than one choice. Specifically, he says, ask yourself to come up with three good choices you would feel most committed to. The very process of carefully opting for some choices and weeding out others heightens resolve.
Whatever you do, he says, the "biggest mistake is to give up on yourself." Instead, no matter what happens, tell yourself, "I learn from my mistakes, and I move on."