Now is the time of year when many people make New Year’s resolutions. Unfortunately, we’ve also reached the time of year where many people have already given up on their resolutions. I want to share with you a theory of change that was developed by Prochaska and DiClemente in the late 70s when they were researching how people quit smoking. You can use this model to help you understand changing the unhealthy behaviors you’re trying to address with your New Year’s resolutions.

  • First, is the Precontemplation stage – The person isn’t considering changing their behavior and isn’t likely to make any changes in the near future.
  • Second, is the Contemplation stage – At this point, the person is ambivalent about making changes, but is starting to see some of the negative consequences of their behavior.  There’s  not a commitment to change at this time.
  • Next, is the Preparation stage – This begins when the person has decided to change and creates a plan of action.
  • Fourth is the Action stage– This is the first time the person is trying out active steps to change.  New behaviors are not established yet.
  • Finally, the Maintenance phase – the new behaviors become stable over a long period of time.  Relapse prevention is one element of this phase when that is a concern ( like if you’re quitting smoking or drinking).

One of the things that’s helpful about the framework of these stages, is  to understand that you can’t move  more than one stage at a time.  You can’t go from precontemplation to action, you can only go from precontemplation to contemplation.  This is helpful to know in terms of what is realistic for you to expect of yourself and others. 

To get started, take a look at the behavior you are trying to change. Ask yourself where you really are in this framework. Do you want to change or are you merely responding to pressure from a loved one? Why do you want to change?  What is motivating you? Then, consider how you can move from where you are to the next stage in this model.

Let’s use smoking as an example. If you’ve decided that smoking is negatively affecting your life, but you still really like it, especially when you are stressed, then you would be in the Contemplation Stage.  If you wanted to move to the preparation stage because you’ve decided to quit, then it would be important to list out all the triggers for smoking and plan out ways you can address them. For instance, if you smoke after a rough day, what are some other things you could do instead? Would calling a friend, taking a walk, or watching funny YouTube videos work for you?  Are you more likely to smoke in social situations or alone? The more thorough your plan is, the more you set yourself up for success.

Being thorough also helps you to be realistic. If you are smoking a pack a day, your body might not handle going cold turkey tomorrow just because it’s January 1st. Creating a specific plan to wean yourself over time would be much more likely to work.  Taking it slow and being honest about what you are able to do at this point would be a much better path to long-term success than jumping into a spontaneous, but unrealistic resolution. Take the first step today, even if that step is simply thinking about change.