Happy first full week of spring, everyone and congratulations to Janice, the winner of the Mamma Chia Clean Energy Prize Pack! Unfortunately it doesn’t quite feel like spring in Boston, but the first full week of spring always reminds me that longer term warm weather is on the way and that’s a change I can always get behind.
Speaking of changes…
Change can be scary, whether it is starting a new job, moving to a new home, or starting a new exercise program. You’ve probably heard someone say that you have to be ready to change for it to actually happen, and you’ve probably seen people who are in less than ideal situations (totally changeable ones at that), but who never take the steps to change that situation.
So what makes someone ready to change? This is one of the most pertinent questions for those of us in the field of helping people change, from personal trainers to therapists to physicians.
One of the best models I’ve come across in my mental health training is the Transtheoretical Model (TTM) of Behavior Change.
The TTM breaks behavior change down into several different stages: precontemplation, contemplation, preparation (also called determination), action and maintenance. The important thing to know about these stages is that when we are trying to change a behavior we move through almost all of these stages multiple times with occasions of relapse in between.
So let’s break the stages down, starting with precontemplation. It’s pretty much what it sounds like. In this stage there is no contemplation about changing at all. The person is content with how things are going and isn’t even considering a change. Think about an alcoholic who doesn’t seem to realize that his/her drinking is having a negative impact or someone who is very overweight, but isn’t yet experiencing any negative health implications. The need to change hasn’t yet been realized and any attempt to get that person to change is going to be fruitless.
Next is the contemplation stage. Here people recognize that a change should be made soon (generally defined as within the next six months), but may still be somewhat ambivalent. Even if change is desired, little if any thought has been given to how that change will occur.
After contemplation is preparation. This is where people begin to plan how they will make a change and make small steps toward making that happen. Someone who needs to start exercising may start researching gyms to join. An alcoholic may start looking into 12 step programs. At this stage, change is imminent within the next 30 days.
Action is all about behavior modification. This is where a person goes to the gym, meets with a trainer, and gets started on an exercise program. The intention is to continue with the new behavior and/or refrain from engaging in the behavior a person is looking to stop.
Once someone has been in the action stage for at least six months, he or she is considered to be in maintenance. Another key component of this stage is the active work to prevent relapse.
Although not a stage of its own, lapse and relapse can happen during any stage, setting a person back either a little (lapse) or even as far as precontemplation (relapse). This is why healthy habits take continual work and why there is no magic pill for changing unhealthy habits.
The research on how to get from one stage to the next is mixed. If you are in the preparation stage, but struggling to make the leap to action because of self-imposed and/or socially-imposed barriers, what is the best way to move forward?
Fake it ‘til you make it.
Research has shown that changing your behavior, even just a little at a time, can actually change your mental state and readiness to embrace healthy habits.
We all make excuses to not embrace healthy habits, what determines your success is whether you let those excuses hold you back or move forward despite them. To get yourself from preparation to action, start small. If time is a factor and you want to start an exercise program, set a goal to come to the gym for 10 minutes, two times per week.
Keep in mind that lapses and relapses happen to the best of us. The best thing you can do is acknowledge the (re)lapse and figure out how it happened so you can avoid it in the future. It may be that you need to step back, reevaluate whether your goals are realistic for you at this point in time, and modify them if necessary. Small steps toward healthier habits are still steps.