“The lizard brain only wants to eat and be safe. The lizard brain is not merely a concept. It’s real, and it’s living on the top of your spine, fighting for your survival. But, of course, survival and success are not the same thing”.
New Year’s resolutions are a traditional feature of our society where we resolve to bring about a change in a behaviour or habit to accomplish some long-desired goal and improve our lives. It is also a tradition that it is around this time of year where those new year’s resolutions go into hibernation until next January.
Human routines are stubborn things. Bad habits are hard to break—and they are impossible to break if we try to break too many at the one time – which helps explain why only 12% of all resolutions are successful.
To understand why so many resolutions and decisions to change fail, we need to understand the nature of habits. In the 1970s Dr James Prochaska and Carlo DiClemente developed a behaviour theory called the Stages of Change. It is particularly useful when trying to understand behavioural habits. The theory says people go through six cyclical stages when trying to change a habit. These are Pre-contemplation, Contemplation, Preparation, Action, Maintenance/Relapse Prevention and Termination.
When at the Pre-contemplation stage, people are not even thinking about changing. They may be in denial or have tried to change a habit so many times they have given up. It is difficult to influence someone at this stage and attempts at influence may even lengthen the time between stages.
In the Contemplation stage, people are thinking about change but are ambivalent about it. They may see giving up a behaviour such as smoking or overeating as a loss rather than a gain. They may seek information about their bad habit and begin to weigh up the barriers and benefits of changing. This stage can take many months.
During the Preparation stage people may experiment with small changes as their determination to transform their behaviour increases. It is at this stage that it may be of benefit to seek the support of a peer, friend, coach or trusted person to set goals and decide how to achieve them.
Action precedes motivation and not the other way around. So, at the action stage, the person makes the change. This action motivates a person to move onto the next step. If the previous stages have been glossed over and no plan has been made, then the action stage is short-lived, and many people relapse to the pre-contemplation stage.
The Maintenance and Preventing Relapse stage is crucial; it is when the new habit is formed. This stage involves incorporating the new behaviour until it becomes a habit. According to statistics, those who keep their resolutions for at least two years report an average of 14 slips or setbacks during that time.
We have to put as much time and effort into forming our good habits as we did into our bad habits. Often people just assume that this stage just happens – it requires thought and support. In the event of a relapse start the cycle again. It takes between 7 and 28 days for a new habit to form, which is the action stage, but maintenance and preventing relapse can take a lifetime.
When the new way of being is firmly in place, fully assimilated into a new way of living, then and only then can we regard the lifestyle change as permanent. Though some awareness and conscious behaviour is required, we can generally call the lifestyle change complete and successful. This is the Termination, or final stage.
For all of us the New Year marks a time of reflection. Babylonians made promises to their gods at the start of each year, the Romans started each year making promises to the god Janus, for whom the month of January is named. Whatever tradition inspires you to make a change make it a change that is realistic, concentrate on the positive outcomes, celebrate each small success, and above all approach it with a positive ‘can do’ attitude and enjoy the journey.
Maura Dolan is an IMI Associate Faculty member and an accredited fellow of coaching (AFC) facilitator and trainer with over 15 years’ experience coaching senior executives, designing and delivering coach training courses.