In my mind, progress ought to be linear: Once I decide to lose weight, do more planks or swear off bacon, those good intentions should be permanent. That means never backsliding again.
But as I fought to zip my pants this morning, I was forced to confess that yes, yet again, I’ve bounced off the weight loss wagon. I am far more familiar with this kind of struggle than I’d like to be, and every time—every single time—I chastise myself. When that happens, what really helps is trotting out the most compassionate scientific instrument ever: The Transtheoretical Model of Change.
It’s taught me that change isn’t an event. It’s a process—and a complicated one. First laid out by alcoholism researchers at the University of Rhode Island back in the 1980s, this model has since become a key way experts look at all kinds of tricky behavioral health problems, including quitting smoking, losing weight, wearing sunscreen or a seatbelt, using condoms, working out and even eating fruits and vegetables.
Making any of these changes requires working through distinct phases. And knowing where we are on this change-o-meter is key to how successful we will be.
1. Change? Heck no. For whatever reason, we’re just not ready. We don’t have time to exercise, or we hate getting sweaty. We’re not willing to do a budget. When we’re at this point, we are actively averse to change, even if we know it is the right thing to do. There is no point in tormenting ourselves with “shoulds.”
2. I know I ought to make this change. But what’s the hurry? Experts call this phase precontemplation. The intention to move toward these healthier behaviors is in the offing. This still isn’t change readiness, but as our minds open to new ideas, we’re taking important internal steps to get closer to being ready. Many people spend years here.
3. Okay. I’m willing to consider it. At this stage, known as contemplation, people often see themselves ready to make the big change within six months.
4. What do I need to do to get started? This is the preparation stage, and it’s exciting. We ask friends questions about their workouts or look up different weight loss programs, debating the Paleo Diet versus South Beach. At this point, most people see themselves within a month of actually lacing up their sneakers or putting down cigarettes
5. Look at me—I’m doing it! This action phase means that the new behavior is being built into our routines, however imperfectly, for about six months.
6. I don’t know how I fit it in. I just do it. After six months of any new behavior, the likelihood of reverting back to the old habit decreases. Experts call it the maintenance phase. We stick with the change not because we should, but because we like it.
But here’s the lovely—albeit maddening—thing these researchers discovered about the change process. It's not linear at all, but a slow steady spiral, with most people cycling through these phases repeatedly before the change becomes semi-permanent. And—since each of these stages is complicated and involved—plenty of people do this “recycling” (a word I like much better than relapsing) quite a few times.
So wherever I am on the change cycle today—from stubborn determination to order French fries to scheduling an extra weight-training session—I’ve learned the best approach to is to be kind to myself, and patient. Like Rome, change isn’t built in a day.
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