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Forget New Year’s Day Resolutions – examine the 5 ‘Stages of Change’ to help you succeed

new years

Change is a Process, not an Event!

With New Year’s Eve less than a fortnight away, I’ve got a question for you.

What is it about January the 1st that has us all convinced we will suddenly be able to do better than we did the day before? 

Millions of people around the world pledge to change some aspect of their lives at the start of each calendar year. More often than not, these promises relate to positive behaviour changes; getting rid of bad habits and forming more beneficial ones. Classics include quitting smoking, drinking less, losing weight, exercising, reading more, having less screen time, or keeping a better work/life balance.  Are any of these sounding familiar?

As you may have experienced in the past, most people who make New Year’s Resolution will fail  -  most of them during the first three months[i].

Why are we so bad at keeping our NYE commitments?  Well, if after a few wines at the neighbour’s BBQ on December 31st you decide that tomorrow will be the day to run the marathon you have never trained for.… well, you haven’t given yourself a very good shot at making the finish line have you?

People often jump ahead to the ‘action’ of what they want to achieve, before they considered the following three game changers:

  • Their readiness to change: Are the resources, motivators and knowledge there, to make a lasting change successful? Do they actually want to change?
  • Their barriers to change: Are there any external or internal factors present, preventing the change from being successful?
  • An examination of risks: What might trigger a return to a former behaviour, and what has to be done to prepare for it?

The Transtheoretical Model[ii] of behaviour change is an integrative, biopsychosocial model that conceptualises the process of intentional behaviour change.  The Stages of Change model forms part of this broader conceptual framework. It tells us that… wait for it… people can successfully change their behaviour when they are ready to do so.  Psychology is so good at stating the obvious!  ‘You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink’ is a saying that sums it up well.  Many a loved one, who is desperate to see their family member stop an unhealthy behaviour, eventually gets to the difficult realisation that ‘they’ll change when they’re ready…’.  But what makes them ready?

In this model, effective change occurs gradually, and relapses are an inevitable part of the process of making a successful change. Change is a process, not an event.

It is true.  An individual won’t change (for the long term) a moment before they’re ready, and only after they have gone through the necessary pre-action stages that include ‘precontemplation’, ‘contemplation’ and ‘preparation’.

But let’s not despair.  There are ways to move toward the long lasting, health promoting, change, that will serve you well, even if doesn’t start as soon as the clock hits midnight on the 1st of January.

The first thing to do is to see where you are at on the Stages of Change model. 

What are the five Stages of Change?

Precontemplation -   This is the person you know who says ‘but I don’t want to quit smoking’.  They have no intent to take action.   This person underestimates the pros, and places too much emphasis on the cons, of changing their behaviour.

Contemplation -        This is the person you know who says ‘I do want to exercise… one day’. They are intending to start the healthy behaviour in the future, but they are feeling ambivalent about the actions they need to take, in order to make the change. They might be interested in learning a little more about the benefits of exercise.

Preparation - This is the person who has started googling ‘dietitians’ in their area and is doing some research on meal planning so they have a better chance of succeeding when they decide to start eating better.  They are ready to take action soon (within the next 30 days), and can tell you the pros and cons of what making this change would mean for them.  They are starting to take small steps toward the behaviour change, believing that action could lead to a healthier life.

Action -           This is the person who has recently changed their behaviour.  They have committed to turning off the alerts on their phone (apart from calls or texts) and have set realistic limits for themselves for screen time in the morning and in the evening.  They have modified their behaviour to a more positive balance of on and offline activity.  They have let people know that they are working on this, and they have some supportive people around them. 

Maintenance – This is the person who can tell you that they have only had alcohol on Friday and Saturday nights for 6 months now.  They tell you that it is really hard sometimes to not have a drink afterwork with their colleagues on a Thursday, or on a Sunday night with their partner, but they have strategies in place to make sure they continue their success. They are experiencing sustained behaviour change, and are committed to keep it up.

So, are you contemplating making a New Year’s resolution in 2019?  Do yourself a favour and do some preparation work now. 

  • Equip yourself with information about the change you are wanting to make. Google it.  Find out what it will take to get this done, and set yourself up for success.
  • Why do you want to change (not ‘why does everyone else say I should change’)?
  • List the pros and cons of the new behaviour for you.
  • Tell people about the change you are committing to make, and set up the social supports who can back you in your decision to take this positive step.
  • Assess any barriers that might be in your path, and figure out what you are going to do if you relapse back to the old behaviour.  Have a plan. 

So please raise your glass – ‘Here’s to 2019, and making positive, effective, and sustainable change!’



[i] Oscarsson, M., Rozental, A. & Andersson, G. (2017).  New Year's resolutions: A large scale randomized controlled trial.  Conference paper, Oral presentation with published abstract (Refereed).


[ii] Prochaska, J. and DiClemente, C. (1983) Stages and processes of self-change in smoking: toward an integrative model of change.  Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 5, 390–395.