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How to make a difference in your life
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Tips for making successful changes

Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, January / February 2011

The New Year often brings with it a feeling of renewal and inspiration to make a fresh start.

Setting and achieving goals is exciting and challenging at the same time. We set goals because we want to make changes and improve our life in some way. But, as the saying goes, "old habits die hard," meaning that making a change from our usual behaviour is not always easy.

So how does someone go about making positive change and sticking to it?

Anyone who has ever made and broken a New Year's resolution can appreciate the difficulty of behaviour change. Making a lasting change in behaviour is rarely a simple process, and usually involves a substantial commitment of time, effort, and emotion.

Whether you want to lose weight, stop smoking, exercise more, achieve worklife balance or accomplish another goal, there is no single solution that works for everyone. You may have to try several different techniques through a process of trial-and-error in order to achieve your goal. It is during this period that many people become discouraged and give up. The key to staying on track is to try new techniques and find ways to stay motivated.

Researchers have studied how people make and maintain successful change, and there are some key ingredients. Interviews with people who have made health-related behaviour change reveal that successful changers move through six stages of change. Success lies in doing the right thing at the right time.

If you want to make some kind of behaviour change this year, a good place to start is by learning more about the six stages of change.

One of the most important questions to ask yourself is how ready are you to make a change in your life? People around you may believe you need to change, but unless you believe you need to change, change is not likely to happen. For example, you may have no intention of reducing your work hours, even though it irritates your partner that you spend little time with your family. This is the stage called precontemplation.

At some point, you may begin to contemplate change. Perhaps you are considering change because you've gained some new information or your circumstances are different so that you begin to see a reason to change. If you are intending to take action in the next six months, you are in the contemplation stage of change. For example, you see that your children are growing up fast and you feel that due to long work hours you may be missing out on some important moments with them. Even though you feel there may be a good reason to change, at this point you still feel ambivalent and aren't sure how to go about making a change.

In the preparation stage of change, people have made the decision to change and believe that they can change; they just need to take care of some things before they actually go ahead. During this stage, it is important to be clear about why you are changing and to have a detailed plan of how you will make the change. Perhaps you have decided to stop bringing work home on weekends. You have written down your goal and the steps you will take to reach it. Another important task of the preparation stage is to prepare the other people in your life so they can be aware of the upcoming change and perhaps be a support to you through this process.

The next important step to successful change is to take action. During this stage, you will be actively changing your behaviours along with your thoughts and awareness. This stage will require the biggest commitment of time and energy. Recognize that there are likely to be setbacks during this stage and that this does not mean you have failed. For example, you are reducing the work you bring home on weekends and are spending more time with your family. You are encouraged by the progress you see, although some days it is very challenging to stay on track.

Now that you have changed your behaviour and have achieved your goal, what's next? Depending on the goal, successful and lasting change may take many months. Research has shown that after change has been successful for six months, individuals begin what is called the maintenance stage of change. During the time that you maintain your changed behaviour, it is helpful to plan for unforeseen events or things that might get in the way of maintaining your goal. For example, how will you cope when demands pile up at work and you feel pressured to bring work home on the weekend again?

In the final stage of change, individuals no longer relate to their old behaviour, as it is neither a temptation nor a threat. You have now developed some new work routines and no longer feel that work is interfering with quality time with your family. Depending on the type of behaviour being changed, it may be necessary for some people to remain in the maintenance stage.

It is important to remember that people do not move through these stages one after the other in a neat order. People will cycle back and forth through these stages as they move toward successful change. If you have had some difficulty making a change in your life, perhaps knowing about these stages of the change process will help you understand more clearly what's not working for you and what you can do to move toward successfully achieving your goal. Remember that with the right amount of information, motivation and support, successful change is possible!

Laurie McPherson is a mental health promotion co-ordinator with the Winnipeg Health Region.


About Wave

Wave is published six times a year by the Winnipeg Health Region in cooperation with the Winnipeg Free Press. It is available at newsstands, hospitals and clinics throughout Winnipeg, as well as McNally Robinson Books.

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