Losing weight, stopping smoking, or starting an exercise program usually top New Year’s resolution lists every year. But if your first impulse is to take action, you might want to stop and think about it instead.
“America is an action-oriented country,” says Dr. James Prochaska, psychologist and author of Changing for Good. “So, at New Year’s, we think there are only two choices—take action or do nothing. Most people think it must be better to take action than do nothing. But if you’re not prepared for change, you’re doomed to failure.”
Indeed, half of all American adults make New Year’s resolutions every January, but almost half of those throw in the towel by February, Prochaska says. Instead of resolving to take action, first resolve to enter a period of self-evaluation. “Change involves progress through a series of stages,” Prochaska says. “You must first get to a stage of readiness for taking action.”
Stages of change are recognizing the need to change, contemplating a change, preparing to change, taking action to change, and maintaining the new behavior, he says.
Getting to the action stage may mean examining why you’ve been resisting changing unhealthy habits in the first place, as well as contemplating the benefits of new habits. “Exercise is the bargain basement of behavior change,” Prochaska says. Nothing you can do will have as many benefits as exercise, and we know that exercise is the best predictor of long-term success in weight loss. Yet when people resolve to lose weight, most go on a diet rather than exercise.
Instead of diving into a diet then, delve into the ways you can benefit from exercising, such as weight loss, improved circulation and cardiovascular health, stress reduction, better sleep, and higher self-esteem. “Coming up with a different benefit for every week of the year can help maintain motivation,” Prochaska says. The same approach can be applied to almost any New Year’s resolution, from conquering credit card debt, to spending more time with family, to managing anger.
After recognizing the need to change and contemplating the costs and benefits of change, New Year’s resolution makers can prepare for action.
That involves committing to a plan of action and taking steps to ensure the success of that plan. For smokers, that might mean cleaning out the ashtray in one’s car or replacing an after-dinner cigarette with a short walk. For dieters, it could mean adding a daily walk. Then once you take action, you’ll have a better chance of success.
“Reward your progress every stage and step of the way,” Prochaska suggests. Pat yourself on the back, share your victories with friends and family and let them cheer you on. Give yourself a reward in the form of an enjoyable activity or a present. And don’t beat yourself up when you backslide. Look at lapses as learning opportunities.
“Remember, change doesn’t equal action,” Prochaska says. “Change equals progress.”