The psychology that underlies the changing of behaviors is complex. Two researchers named Prochaska and DiClemente developed a way of describing it they called the Stages of Change Model. Though originally developed in the context of smoking cessation, it's five stages actually describe the process by which all behaviors change.
ONE STAGE LEADS TO ANOTHER
The true power of this model really becomes apparent when we recognize these stages are sequential and conditional. In my medical practice, I first identify the stage in which a patient sits with respect to the behavior I want them to change. A smoker who's never seriously considered giving up tobacco would be in the stage of Precontemplation—and if I expected them to jump from that stage over Contemplation and Determination directly to Action, they'd almost certainly fail to change and frustrate us both. If, however, I focus on ways to move them from one stage to the next, I can "ripen" them at a pace with which they're comfortable: from Contemplation to Determination to Action to Maintenance. As an example, I often give patients in the stage of Precontemplation a simple assignment: I ask them to think about how the change I want them to make would improve their lives. That doesn't seem like such a difficult step, but if they do it, I've just moved them into Contemplation! That may seem like insignificant progress, but it's actually 1/5 of the work that needs to be done. Most people (though certainly not all) seem to be more comfortable embracing change in a step-wise fashion.
The utility of the Stages of Change Model isn't restricted to the medical arena but in fact extends to almost every area of life. As an example, my wife used it on me to get me to try sushi (which I now love!). It could be used in business perhaps on employees to yield changes like improved productivity or cooperation, or even on potential clients to get them to hire you! The potential applications are limited only by your imagination.
Finally, and most importantly, you can use this model on yourself. By recognizing which of the five stages of change you find yourself in at any one time with respect to any one behavior you're trying to change, you can maintain realistic expectations and minimize your frustration. Focus on reaching the next stage rather than on the end goal, which may seem too far away and therefore discourage you from even starting on the path towards it.
The final stage of any process leading to behavior change is one extremely difficult to avoid: relapse. Though it may sometimes be inevitable, if you train yourself to view relapse as only one more stage in the process of change rather than as a failure, you're much more likely to be able to quickly return to your desired behavior. Alternatively, when you allow yourself to view relapse as a complete failure, that assessment typically becomes self-fulfilling. Just because you fell off the diet wagon during a holiday doesn't mean you're doomed to return permanently to poor eating habits—unless you think you are and allow yourself to become discouraged, in which case you will. Long term weight gain or loss, it turns out, isn't correlated to calorie intake on any one day but rather to calorie intake over a period of time, which essentially means if you overeat here or there on a few days only, it won't actually affect your long-term ability to lose weight.
The same is true, in fact, with any behavior you want to change. Never let a few days, or even weeks, of falling back into bad habits discourage you from fighting to reestablish the good habits you want. Always remember: none of us was born with any habits at all. They were all learned, and can all, therefore, be unlearned. The question is: how badly do you really want to change?
If you enjoyed this post, please feel free to explore Dr. Lickerman's home page, Happiness in this World.