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Are you ready to challenge your bad habits?

If we're all creatures of habit, which ones rise to the top of your list? Obviously, many of our habits are healthy. They allow us to move through our daily routines.

I'm talking about those pesky ones that follow us around. Maybe you're a procrastinator and would like to put this question off. Or an emotional eater who needs to run to the fridge to deal with this. Or a smoker who needs to light up another cigarette.

It may be easier to pick up the remote and surf the TV channels - or the Internet (unless this makes you want to whip out your credit card to order yet another needless item). Then again, you may not be able to focus because your work or home areas are cluttered - which leads to a compulsion to clean, organize or bite your nails.

Anyway, you get my point. So, what are our options? First, we need to examine a few things:

  • Do we really want to change?
  • Are we ready to change?
  • Do we have the resources in place to sustain a change?
  • Is the payoff greater for continuing the habit than making a change?
  • The first two questions may look like no-brainers. Actually, they're very important to the process. If we're really not ready for change, we end up sabotaging our efforts, beating ourselves up and feeling guilty about our failures.

    According to Dr. James Prochaska and Dr. Carlo DiClemente, developers of the Stages of Change model, there are five distinct stages of change that lead to successful integration of new behaviors.

    1. Pre-contemplation

    2. Contemplation

    3. Preparation

    4. Action

    5. Maintenance, or termination (relapse)

    The model has been adopted around the world and has revolutionized the field of substance-abuse prevention and treatment. It stands to reason it could be helpful for overcoming other bad habits that are not necessarily life-threatening, but that chip away at our sense of self-integrity.

    Here's a snapshot of the steps in the Stages of Change model:

    Pre-contemplation: Not currently considering change - "ignorance is bliss."

    Contemplation: Ambivalent about change - "sitting on the fence." This is the stage to evaluate pros and cons of behavior change. Try identifying new, positive outcome experiences without committing to change yet.

    Preparation: Some experience with change - "testing the waters." Look at small, initial steps. Identify replacement behaviors for bad habit. Look at the "triggers" that push your buttons to continue the bad habit. Identify social support.

    Action: Practice new behavior for three to six months. Be diligent with replacement behaviors and watch out for triggers. Focus on the end result. Reward yourself.

    Maintenance: Continued commitment to sustaining new behavior beyond six months.

    Relapse: Resurrection of old behaviors - "falling from grace." Evaluate triggers for the relapse. Reassess motivation and barriers. Plan stronger coping strategies. Return to maintenance.

    By using the Stages of Change model, we can achieve success in various stages of the model. A common mistake is to start out thinking we can change overnight when it may have taken years of repeated behavior to get us to this point. A good case in point would be all of the failed new year's resolutions over the years.

    "Recognizing people's stages is critical to success in getting them to change behaviors," says Prochaska. "What we have found is that 80 percent of smokers are not ready to quit, but by designing interventions that take their stage of readiness into account, we have been able to sustain cessation rates of 25 percent at 18 to 24 months."

    This tool can be effective with those everyday annoying habits as well. Taking the time to go through the stages - and not kidding ourselves about where we are in the process - is key.

    For the contemplation and preparation stages, I've identified several principles that may be helpful:

  • The human mind is extremely subject to conditioning and triggers.
  • Remember Pavlov's dogs? We are very prone to develop a habit that is done at a certain time and a certain place. Then when we enter that phase, we feel the urge to do that thing even if we don't really want to. If we honestly want to break the habit, we need to be careful about placing ourselves in those situations.

  • We have to want to quit the habit more than we want to keep doing it.
  • Well, duh ... doesn't that go without saying? Not necessarily. While we want to quit, on some level (conscious or subconscious) we also want to keep doing the habit.

    Both of these "wants" are strong pulls to our emotions. Some habits allow us to escape reality, so that's a payoff. Some provide comfort and fill a void. As we resolve to stop these "bad" habits, we find ourselves caught in a war of emotions between the two desires. And the stronger of the two desires within us always wins out.

    That's why it's so important to go through the contemplation and preparation stages. Realize the difficulty in changing ingrained patterns of behavior. Respect the strength of the triggers, and get those alternative behaviors lined up. When you relapse, realize that's all part of the process, too.

    I'll close with two quotes by Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu:

    "The journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step."

    And my personal favorite:

    "At the center of your being you have the answer; you know who you are, and you know what you want."

    Linda Arnold is a certified wellness instructor and founder and chairwoman of The Arnold Agency, an integrated marketing communications firm in Charleston. Reader comments or questions may be mailed to Linda Arnold, The Arnold Agency, 117 Summers St., Charleston, WV 25301, or e-mail livinglifefully@arnoldagency.com.


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