The Art of Change

As lockdown 3.0 grinds on, it may be that you are using the time to engage in a project of personal improvement.  Changing isn’t easy, so a useful way to think about it is offered by psychologists Prochaska and DiClemente, who broke down the process into five steps.  Let’s use fitness as an example.

  • Pre-contemplation: This is the ‘blissfully unaware’ stage of the process.  If you are in this stage, you are not thinking that things need to be different.  Other people might be of course, and it may be from them that the need to change starts to be discussed.  This is the first stage of the change process.  This is the time that your partner perhaps mentions how much you have been eating and/or drinking and that you have noticeably gained weight. 

  • Contemplation: At this stage, you have become aware and accepting of the problem.  You will be conscious of the impact this this issue is having on your day-to-day life, but you will not yet be taking any steps to make changes.  What your partner said made sense and you aren’t feeling good about it.  This is often quite an uncomfortable place to be.  You know you need to do something but either you haven’t really started, or you aren’t sure where to start.  This is the second stage of the change process.

  • Preparation: At this point, you are taking steps to prepare yourself for change.  This may involve psychological preparations (considering your emotional needs in readiness for making something happen e.g., seeking social and/or emotional support from friends) and practical preparations (taking steps to accommodate the new change into your life).  This is the third stage of the change process and it’s often the one that’s rushed.  Having acknowledged that something needs to happen, you itch to get started.  Let’s say you decide that running would be a good way to help you lose the weight you have gained.  Would you just buy some new gear on Amazon and get out there; or would you carefully embark on a training programme to get you to the right level of fitness?  All the research suggests that careful preparation is the key and that’s why programmes like Couch to 5K can be so successful.

  • Action: At this point, you are enacting the change you have prepared for.  The more that you have prepared and envisioned the positive and desirable end state, the more likely it is that this stage will be a success.  The key thing that sets this stage apart from the others is that at this point, there really will be psychological and/or practical changes occurring in your life.  What you are working on will be visible to you and others.  This is the fourth stage and what’s often forgotten is that all change at some level includes loss.  Back to the running: if you want to do this regularly, you will need to forgo other things and that’s just a fact.  The loss of freedom (even if it’s the freedom to eat and drink what you want) is something that you will feel resistant to at some level; so change has to feel worth it.

  • Maintenance: At this stage, you are seeking to maintain that change for the longer term.  This involves you integrating the change into your life in a way that is sustainable for the future.  This is the final stage of the change process and you might argue the most important.  Back to running – imagine that you conquered the 5K programme.  Lockdown has come and gone (we hope!), you enjoyed many weeks of regular exercise and you are in better shape.  Let’s imagine COVID restrictions have been lifted and the party is back on. The invites for socials come in and your role in past years has been chief merrymaker.  Your alcohol-fuelled antics have become legendary and your friends can’t wait for the next instalment.  But at what cost?  Maintenance doesn’t happen by accident.  You will need to make structural changes to your life if you want to avoid the final stage …

  • Relapse: This word often brings on a feeling of dread but is actually entirely expected and normal.  When making a change, from time to time you will slip back into old habits; former ways of thinking, behaving and living your life – or at least you will be very tempted to.  You can relapse to any of the above stages, but the important thing to remember is that this doesn’t always mean ‘going back to square one’.  Beating yourself up certainly isn’t going to help.  Consider what caused the slip, how you can avoid it happening again in the future, and how you can start again.  Just don’t give up!

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