Are you full of good intentions that you’re finding hard to turn into actions when it comes to improving your wellbeing? Let’s be honest, while it may be relatively straightforward to try and move more, eat better, and go to bed earlier if it was easy to consistently pull these actions off we’d all be thriving. But we’re not. So why is it so hard to do the simple things that are good for us?

“Making changes for our wellbeing is a journey, and not always an easy one. Despite your best intentions and repeated attempts, it can be difficult to change unhelpful habits,” explained James Prochaska from the University of Rhode Island when I interviewed him recently. “A common mistake people make is thinking is that change automatically equals taking action. However, most of the roadblocks to change happen before you take any action which can leave us never feeling ready to make the changes we need to improve our wellbeing.”

Despite the popular suggestions that people don’t have enough motivation, confidence, willpower, or the right genes or personality to create wellbeing changes, James’ research has found that the number one reason people fail to make the changes they want is that they don’t know how to change. To help bridge this gap, 35 years ago James and his colleagues developed the Transtheoretical Model of Behavior Change after discovering that the stages of change most people move through include:

  • Pre-contemplating – when you’re not ready yet to make a change and could be stuck in stories of “I don’t know how to,’’ “I don’t think I can,’’ or “I don’t want to’’ To progress from this stage, try to find ways to feel more hopeful about your capacity for change, focus on building your awareness of the benefits of making the changes, and become aware of the possible strategies you’re currently using to defend your unhealthy habits. Try journaling to help you experience and express your emotions about making the change.
  • Contemplating – progressing to this stage is the biggest leap in making change, as you start to see more pros than cons to the changes you want to make, but you might still have doubts about the value of making the change, and this causes you to delay acting. To continue progressing through this stage, you need to lower the perceived costs while continuing to increase the perceived benefits so making the change appears as a good investment of your time and energy. It can help to think about how your changes will positively affect others around you.
  • Being Prepared as the pros clearly start to outweigh the costs, your feelings of hope build although the dread of failing can still temper your readiness for action. The better prepared you are, the more likely you’ll be at to act so research different options for action and seek out people who can help support the achievement of your goals. For example, if it’s exercising more looking into the different gyms close to your workplace, see if you can find an exercise buddy or trainer, and find ways you can track your progress. Sometimes this can mean you might need to slow things down, so when you do take action, you can throw your whole self into it.
  • Taking action – you’ve made the commitment, and you’re doing it! Let others know that for the next six months you’ll be putting in a concerted effort at change and ask for their support to keep you on track. Add positive cues in your environment to make it easier to do the new behavior – whether it’s putting gym shoes in your car, so you can walk in your lunch break, putting healthy snacks with your lunch, or having a buddy to walk with. Remember to reward yourself for the progress you’re making. 
  • Maintenance – you’ve made your changes stick for more than six months, and you’re heading towards at least five years without a relapse. To maintain your behavior, you’ll need to be prepared to deal with the distress we all encounter from time to time when things don’t go the way we want. Rather than letting your healthy changes lapse in these moments, studies suggest that the three best ways for preparing for and coping with distress are talking, walking or relaxing and letting the distress leave your body or mind. If you do struggle to maintain the changes you’ve created, however, rather than thinking of this as ‘relapsing’ try to view it as ‘recycling’ the steps as you return to contemplating, then move on to preparing for your next action attempt. The only major mistake you can make in trying to improve your wellbeing is to become demoralized and give up all hope that you can change.
  • Termination – If you have zero temptation to return to your previous behaviors, have full confidence that you won’t relapse, and are so comfortable with the changes you’ve made that you no longer have to make any efforts to keep from relapsing.

“The stages of change provide a useful roadmap so people can see where they are heading.  But while the map can appear linear, the reality is that sometimes you may not progress straight from one stage to the next, but rather cycle back and forth between stages, and this can be a normal part of the change process,” explained James. “And in contrast to a purely action-focused model of change where a ‘ready or not’ approach means people are often labeled as unmotivated, resistant, non-complaint, or unwilling if they are not immediately acting, the stages of change model recognizes the value of allowing people to celebrate the small but important steps they are taking during the pre-contemplation and contemplation stages of the change process.”

What stage are you at with the wellbeing changes you want to make in your life?