By Stacey Colino , Stacey Colino lives in Maryland, where she writes about health and psychology issues.
This is the moment you've been looking forward to: You're about to jump headfirst into a vigorous campaign to eat less, exercise more, and practice the de stressing techniques that will make you happier, healthier, and more productive than ever. This time you really will change. You've never been more motivated and committed. Ready? On your mark, get set…
Sorry, but there's a good chance you're getting ahead of yourself, according to a revolutionary new theory of change. Only about 20% of people who need to ditch bad habits for good ones are actually ready to do so, says psychologist James Prochaska, PhD, coauthor of Changing for Good. Before you take your inaugural predawn power walk or mix your first high protein shake, you must progress through three essential preparatory stages, he says. If you do, you have an excellent chance of making those new habits stick.
Prochaska, director of the Cancer Prevention Research Center at the University of Rhode Island, has identified five key stages of change. In the first, you admit to having a vague sense that you need to alter your behavior; in the second you intend to do so, but not right now. By the third stage, you're arranging all the details that will kick off the fourth, or action, stage. In the fifth, you maintain your new routines until they blend seamlessly into your lifestyle. The first three stages, however, require the most mental preparation. Here's how to identify where you are in the process--and take the steps necessary to make your goal a lifelong reality.
You're here if: You have the nagging feeling that you really do need to, say, start exercising and eating better. But delay rules. Where should you start?
How to Move to Step 2:
- Tune in to your excuses. When a friend invites you to a yoga class, how do you respond? Do you decline the invite, blaming a busy schedule? Your bad back? Facing your excuses is the first step toward overcoming them.
- Tally the benefits of change. If you lost weight you'd lower your risk of heart disease, diabetes, and hypertension. You'd also boost your energy, feel more attractive, and fit easily into your clothes. The upside of the status quo...? Case closed.
- Ask for help. Let your friends know you're struggling with your decision and that pushing you is exactly what you don't need. What is helpful: gently pointing out your delaying tactics.
You're here if: You know you have to modify your behavior but don't know how--and you're still afraid of failing.
How to Move to Step 3:
- Educate yourself. Read articles and books about the new habit you want to cultivate. For instance, doing cardio not only burns calories but helps stave off memory loss. Also, get a reality check from your doctor: Unlike your husband, who may not mind the 30 pounds you've gained, your doc should tell you bluntly about how excess weight may be harming your health.
- Work through ambivalence. When you fall back on a familiar excuse, ask yourself, Is this true? Do you really have no time to work out when in fact you watch reruns of Law and Order twice a week? Connect your interest in changing with something you value--for example, if dropping 20 pounds means you have more energy to join your husband and kids on their yearly ski trips.
- Dip your toe in the water. Want to start a walking program some day? Do a test run now by going for a short brisk walk to see how it feels. "It's like warming up your engine," Prochaska says. "By taking those small steps, you'll be motivated to launch your plan."
Step 3: Preparation
You're here if: You're ready to undertake the hard work required to, for example, lose weight, shape up, or manage stress better--and you're taking small steps to commit to the effort for at least 6 months.
Move to the starting line:
- Make room for your goal. You may need to reorganize your kids' schedules or delegate certain household responsibilities. Then pencil in cooking, exercise, or meditating on your daily calendar just as you would for a meeting, says Maryann Troiani, PsyD, a psychologist in Barrington, IL, and coauthor of Spontaneous Optimism .
- Map out a plan. If you're going to upgrade your diet, should you see a nutritionist? Stock up on certain foods? "If you can't write down your plan or explain it to a 10-year-old, you're not ready," says John C. Norcross, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Scranton and coauthor of Changing for Good . Anticipate potential obstacles: If a work deadline will interfere with your exercise schedule, map out a short lunchtime walk.
- Take your plan public. Set a start date and clue in family and close friends. "Once you say it out loud, it becomes a commitment that other people know about, which creates pressure on you to follow through," Norcross says.
Now that you've laid the necessary groundwork, you surely will. So, are you ready? Get set...