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5 Stages to Actualize Your New Year’s Resolutions

Significant life change happens over time, not overnight.

CC0 Creative Commons
Source: CC0 Creative Commons

It’s that time of year. The December holidays yield to the next New Year. Each new year offers enticing opportunities to reflect on where we are currently and where we’d like to go. These are occasions to consider the kinds of life adjustments will serve our growth, health, and healing — the sorts of course corrections that help us move toward greater alignment with our values and become the person we wish to be. In other words, we are gifted with invitations for change.

Most people have a hard time accepting the need to change and find it even harder to actually make meaningful life changes. Let’s face it, change is scary. There is a natural fear of the unknown and the uncertainty that comes with it. It takes strength and courage to do anything different or unfamiliar, because unfamiliarity breeds discomfort, and the more unfamiliar “it” is, the more discomfort we feel. Importantly, courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is acknowledging your fear and doing what you need to do in spite of it.

It’s not unusual for people to stay in painful, unhealthy situations, sometimes for years, even when they know they need to make changes. Because they are familiar with the pain of their specific situation — they know exactly how it works and what the results will be — there is a certain predictability and comfort in it. Most people become motivated and begin to move toward making major life changes only when the pain of staying the same outweighs the fear of doing something different.

The process of making significant changes in any area of life unfolds over time and involves progressing through a series of stages, detailed in the Transtheoretical Model of Change. This model can be applied to a wide range of behaviors and life areas — including addiction and recovery — and while the amount of time a person spends in each stage varies, the order of stages does not change.

The Transtheoretical Model of Change

Developed by psychologists James O. Prochaska and Carlo C. DiClemente, this model integrates multiple theories about the process of change and boils them down to five straightforward stages.

1. Pre-contemplation — Not Yet Ready/Not Thinking About Change

In the pre-contemplation stage, people do not intend to take action in the foreseeable future. They are generally unaware of or minimize the extent to which their behavior is problematic, contributes to problems, or creates negative consequences. They see no reason to consider changing or making improvements. If you’re making or have already made specific New Year’s resolutions, you have progressed past this stage.

2. Contemplation — Getting Ready

Contemplation is the stage in which people think about the possibility of making changes and begin to inch toward change. They are more aware of the pros of changing, but are also acutely aware of the cons. They have an awareness of an issue that requires change or improvement, but they’re either not yet ready to do anything about it or are uncertain what to do about it. Ambivalence or mixed emotions about whether to make changes in the first place, as well as what changes to make and how to go about making them, can cause people to remain in this stage for long periods of time. As a result, sometimes even you know it’s important to make a change, and part of you wants (perhaps really wants) to pursue it, it may take you longer than you wish or think it will take to get there.

3. Preparation — Readiness

Preparation is the stage in which people understand that behavioral change is necessary and are ready to take action. They set a clear intention to make the changes in question, may have a plan of action, such as joining a gym, consulting a counselor, talking to their physician, or relying on a self-change approach, and begin to take the initial, often small, steps toward making improvements in their behavior.

4. Action

Action is the stage in which people make concerted changes and improvements in their behavior — by modifying their existing behaviors, acquiring new, healthier behaviors, or both. Action is observable and can include reducing or quitting nicotine, leaving an unsatisfying or unhealthy relationship, starting counseling, discontinuing the use of alcohol and other drugs, actively engaging in the process of recovery by attending 12-step meetings and getting a sponsor, beginning to meditate or making meditation a consistent daily practice, engaging in other mindfulness practices, eating healthier, and exercising regularly. Because action is observable, the overall process of behavior change is often equated with action, even though it's only one part of a much larger process.

5. Maintenance

Maintenance is the stage in which people have made specific, overt modifications in their lifestyles and are working to sustain those healthy changes. They have committed to continuing and further building upon them going forward. In this stage, people work to prevent relapse into past unhelpful and unhealthy behaviors and grow increasingly more confident that they can continue their changes.

Understanding which stage you’re in vis-à-vis the change process you’re considering or acting on will provide valuable context and help you better appreciate where you are and what you need to do to get where you’re going and achieve your desired goals.

Principles of Behavior Change

  • There are certain dynamics that are universal to all forms of behavior change.
  • Change is a messy process of trial, error, and experimentation.
  • Change involves taking risks.
  • Mistakes are opportunities to learn and adjust.
  • Change includes “failure.” (Actually, there is no such thing as failure, only information. Even when attempts at change don’t yield the desired outcome(s), they provide valuable information that can be integrated into future attempts at change.)
  • Change often feels worse before it feels better.
  • Small pebbles can make big ripples — small-scale changes can reverberate widely and have unforeseen potency.

A word (or a few) on intentions relative to actions: You may be familiar with the saying, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” In some families, this message is used as a form of critical and/or guilt-inducing bludgeon. However, as a dear friend of mine with over 30 years in addiction recovery who is also a Buddhist priest ordained by Thich Nat Hahn describes, a clearly set intention has meaning and value in and off itself — apart from whether we bring it to full fruition.

In fact, when we come to the experience of not yet being ready or unable to actualize an intention we can use it as an invitation to practice self-compassion and self-forgiveness. And when we do, self-criticism and feelings of failure or of not being good enough soften and fade, and we cultivate an attitude of acceptance and loving awareness toward ourselves which deepens our capacity to make progress — wherever we’re seeking to go.

Copyright 2018 Dan Mager, MSW

Author of Roots and Wings: Mindful Parenting in Recovery and Some Assembly Required: A Balanced Approach to Recovery from Addiction and Chronic Pain


Prochaska, J.O., Redding, C.A., & Evers, K. (2002). The Transtheoretical Model and Stages of Change. In K. Glanz, B.K. Rimer & F.M. Lewis, (Eds.) Health Behavior and Health Education: Theory, Research, and Practice (3rd Ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, Inc.

Prochaska, J.O., DiClemente, C.C., & Norcross, J.C. (1992). In search of how people change: Applications to the addictive behaviors. American Psychologist, 47, 1102-1114. PMID: 1329589.

Prochaska, J. and DiClemente, C. (1983) Stages and processes of self-change in smoking: toward an integrative model of change. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 5, 390–395.