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The Psychology of Sticking to a Change

Even when we've weighed up all the pros and cons and decided to do something differently, it can take us a long time to actually alter our behaviour and stick to it.

It's unusual to feel entirely certain about making a change. We are complex creatures, and we often feel more than one emotion at a time. I might really want to eat more healthily as an abstract idea - of course I do! Why wouldn't I? But when there's a chocolate biscuit in front of me I might also really want to eat it. How often do we daydream about changing our lives without necessarily definitely wanting to follow through?

Even when we've weighed up all the pros and cons and decided to do something differently, it can take us a long time to actually alter our behaviour and stick to it.

Prochaska and Diclemente are two psychologists who were major players in thinking about how we make changes in our behaviour. They did a brilliant job of summarising the process we often go through. The stages of change, as they see them, are not linear, but a cycle, that we can loop back round. This was a really new idea back in the late seventies and early eighties when they first wrote about it, even though it's now very much accepted.

They thought it all starts with pre-contemplation, where we aren't even thinking about making a change, then progresses through contemplation - where we become aware of something being problematic but don't do anything differently, to preparation for a change, then finally taking action, and then maybe hardest of all trying to maintain that change. It's really hard to stick to a change in behaviour so often we relapse back into our old way of being, but we might cycle through those initial stages much quicker the next time round.

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They described an early version of their model using the figures below in their 1982 paper about giving up smoking. The labels are slightly different in this paper from the ones they settled on, but the ideas are the same. They moved thinking from a linear stage model like this:

To a cyclical model like this:

To put it in context with an example... one of my current promises to myself is to make more time for writing. There was a period of time where I hadn't clocked this as something I wanted to change, when I was in pre-contemplation. There was a much longer period of time when I knew I wanted to make more time, but mostly what I was doing about that was telling people: "yeah I really want to make more time for writing." Was I actually doing that much about it? Not for quite a while. I was in contemplation. This is a horrible stage to be in, I think, because you've clocked something you want to be different but you're not making much movement. I started to think about how I could make a change next (preparation), and I was helped by some conversations with friends, who asked me questions like "how are you going to do that? What first step could you take?" I thought about these questions, and it made me practically consider when I was going to write, what would help me to keep the time free, and how I would notice if I wasn't managing it.

Next step was taking action: I've got a working pattern now that gives me a clear day to write, which is probably the day that makes me happiest. It's hard to keep the time free though, I have to really watch myself to stop booking things in on my writing day just because I'm not "at work". In December I managed to sneak in all sorts of things that meant I hardly wrote at all (a relapse of sorts).

The thing with the stages of change model though, is that that's ok: it's fine to cycle through the stages. It's not the end of the world if you fall off whatever wagon you're on, but the aim is to make the bit of time you spend in the maintenance stage as long as possible. So don't waste time beating yourself up about it if you have a slip up with a change you want to make, just try to be kind to yourself and focus on getting going again. And if you need help thinking about what change you want to make - try last week's piece on The Psychology of Making a Change. Good luck!

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