Let’s talk about why many New Years Resolutions and Diets are destined to fail and how to reframe them so they will stick.
Many people make New Year’s Resolutions for weight loss, healthier eating, giving up junk food, etc. Often, their commitment to change works for a short period, only to go back to where they started. We all know the vicious cycle.
This is because effective change happens gradually – not magically on January 1st.
There are several stages of change that people go through when making any change to their lifestyle or behaviors. Too many times, people get a gust of motivation and try to skip through the stages.
This sets a person up for failure, and this is why diets and New Years Resolutions DON’T WORK!
In most cases, people begin a diet in a very radical way. They may throw away all the junk food in their house, swear off carbs, commit to only eating veggies, chicken, and rice. Sounds great – in theory. But what happens next? After a day, week, month, or heck even a couple of hours, a person becomes consumed by all the foods they are missing out on or obsessed with thinking about sweet treats or a triple cheese pizza. Then what happens? A person falls from their diet – and goes back to the way they were before. Want to hear the craziest part? Many times the person will try to do the same sort of thing next time they have a spark motivation to change their diet or lose weight. Humm, something obviously isn’t adding up.
Which foods are healthiest?
McDonalds Big Mac with Cheese
Thai-curry vegetable soup
Grilled shrimp with stir-fried veggies
I would bet that most of you said that the Thai-curry vegetable soup and Grilled shrimp with stir-fried veggies are healthy foods while the rest are not. Ding-Ding-Ding! That is the correct answer!
So the question is, why do people eat foods that are unhealthy for them when they know which foods are healthier choices? Even when people who are at risk of significant health complications from their weight or health, some still choose unhealthy foods. We often see the same patterns as people who smoke cigarettes.
Why is that?
This is where understanding some basic human psychology comes in. When you understand how people operate, making lasting change is made possible. Don’t worry; I promise not to bore you!
There are distinct stages of change that people go through when making any lasting change. Too often, we act as if we are 100% ready to change as if we are in the “action” stage. It is this mistake, which is why so many diets fail and the reason why New Years Resolutions don’t stick.
The first stage of change is
This is the stage where people who have no interest in changing are. I am sure you have met people who eat fast food every single day and have zero intention or desire to change or smoke a pack of cigarettes a day and do not believe it will negatively impact their health. Many times these people are in denial. But don’t worry, there is still hope.
Thought provoking question such which help people to consider the idea of making a change is key. For example, “What would have to happen to signal that it is time to change your eating patterns? Typically these are questions that a concerned friend, family member or health care provider would ask – not something a person in this stage would ask themselves on their own.
The second stage of change is
In this stage, people are dipping their toe in the idea of changing. They are ambivalent toward the change. In other words, they are juggling the obstacles to change or the loss they will experience with change, as well as the reasons why the change would benefit them.
You will often see these people jump into a crash diet one day, and fall back into their old ways a few days later. The main reason why people fail who are in this stage is that the fast food, chocolate, or cigarettes they are trying to give up meets a need for them that goes much deeper than satisfying their taste buds. Fatty, sugary foods, or cigarettes can be someone’s coping mechanism for a deeper issue. If the underlying need that these foods or behaviors are helping the person deal with isn’t met, then they will likely go back to french fries, coco-puffs, or cigarettes.
Considerations at this stage are the obstacles and the advantages. A person should take time to consider obstacles they may face by changing, and think about strategies to over come them. They need to ponder things or people that will help them make change as well. Creating a pros and cons list about changing and not changing can help people discover what their personal barriers to charge are.
This is the time a person is experimenting with small changes that relate to the more significant change they are gearing up for. For example, a person may commit to avoiding sugary drinks during the week or adding a green vegetable to dinner on weeknights. People are testing out the waters in this stage – getting a taste of what moving toward change looks like. A person can stay in this stage for a long time – which is good because you can’t rush change.
After this stage comes
This the stage most of us think we are at. This is the stage where people take action on their change. Often, people do not move through the prior stages and jump right to action, which sets people up for failure. Why? Because they did not lay down the foundation for change first. Once a person moves successfully (and usually slowly) through the prior stages, the action stage is much easier to maintain.
Lastly, there is
Maintenance and Relapse
This is where the test of time comes in. Once a person has moved through the action stage, it brings them into maintenance. In other words, they are continuing the new behavior over time and are working to integrate it into their lifestyle. The truth is, relapses are frequent and do not mean a person has failed. They are part of the change process.
The critical part here is to plan for relapses. For instance, when changing your diet, what happens during the holidays when there are cookies and treats being offered to you? What is your plan after you do eat a cookie? (which will happen, people!). This stage is inevitable and vital to plan for. If you have a plan in place on “how to get back on the horse,” then you are going into things prepared.
How to Make Changes that Stick
The key to making successful changes is moving through these stages of change entirely. Too often, people jump from one stage down to the Action stage. Even doctors are guilty of treating their patients as if they were in the Action stage when many are still ambivalent about change.
An example is purchasing a 30-day meal plan with diets and recipes to lose weight, when the truth is, you may be in the contemplation stage where you are not sure that you want to give up unhealthy foods and sugary drinks. This sets people up for failure.
Tips for making successful changes
- Recognize what stage you are at. Focus on moving incrementally to the next stage rather than making massive, drastic changes.
- Create pros and cons lists for making change and be honest with yourself. List the advantages of changing, the cons of changing, the disadvantages of not changing, and the pros of not changing. Ask yourself what you stand to lose by making changes and prepare to replace these losses with something else.
- Work with micro-goals that are small changes that are easy to achieve. This approach helps to build your confidence in making changes.
- Expect relapses and take them in stride. These are NOT a failure; they are part of the change process.
Here is a Self-Guided Exercise to Help You Identify Where You are at With Change:
Prochaska JO, DiClemente CC, Norcross JC. In search of how people change. Am Psychol. 1992;47:1102–4.
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