By Mary C. Sanders, FNP-C, BC-ADM, CDCES

Let’s face it; change is hard. Most of our behaviors are habitual and become automatic overtime. We are all multi-tasking, so anything we can let run on “auto-pilot” allows us to conserve energy for the multitude of other responsibilities we are trying to juggle. 

Anyone who’s ever tried to break a bad habit or start a new healthy one can tell you it takes time and energy—two things that we just don’t always have. For example, let’s say you have a goal to stop drinking soda. Initially, you will have to make a conscious effort every time you grab a drink, order a drink, or even think of taking a drink, NOT to drink soda. However, over time (and admittedly it may be a while), your conscious choices will become unconscious and will become habituated.

Change is not a straight line

From a physiologic perspective, our brains are wired to adapt to any change. This adaptability is referred to as neuroplasticity. When we make a change, our brains change chemically, structurally, and functionally. In fact, intentional behavior change requires the severing of a formed neural connection (what we refer to as breaking the old habit) while simultaneously establishing and strengthening new pathways (creating a new habit). From a psychologic perspective, according to researchers James Prochaska and Carlo DiClemente, behavior change has six distinct stages:

  1. Precontemplation (The Blissful Ignorance Stage): You are not even aware of a problem or a need for change.
  2. Contemplation (The “Hmmm” Stage): You become aware there may be a behavior you want to change but aren’t quite ready to take the leap.
  3. Preparation (The Ready, Set Stage): You become motivated to make a change and learn how to go about shifting patterns of behavior.
  4. Action (The Go Stage): You start implementing the new healthy behavior.
  5. Maintenance (The Keep It Up Stage): You fully realize the benefits of change and the efforts required to continue your new-found habits.
  6. Relapse (The Try Again Stage): You slip back into old habits and work to resume the new, healthy behavior.

So, what is the lesson here? We should expect that change is not a straight line. In fact, lasting change will take time and requires that we accept the occurrence of setbacks as we seek to make positive behavior change. 

Keys to successful change

I believe successful change comes down to three things—identifying a direction or destination, planning, and consistency. Start with establishing a direction (you can also call it a vision, goal, or any other target word that motivates you). The important thing is that you visualize yourself at your end game: being where you want to be, achieving what you want to achieve. It is important to acknowledge here that ultimately it is you who must determine what you want to change. Attempting to change a behavior that you think someone else wants you to change is challenging. 

Once you have a direction, plan your route. Identify strategies you will use to achieve your goal. Surround yourself with allies who will support you in achieving it and remind you why you started in the first place. And lastly, brainstorm some potential obstacles you may encounter and potential ways to overcome them. Once your plan is in place, it’s time to get started! 

As you implement the new behavior, remember that consistency is the key to success. Consistency is also the hardest of these three components to success. I recommend finding ways to stay motivated, keeping your eyes on your ultimate destination, and finding new and creative ways to continue moving forward. As anyone who has made lasting behavior changes will tell you, often the joy comes from the journey, not just the destination.

Setbacks may be part of the journey

Relapsing is a normal part of the change process. At some point, we have all found ourselves sliding back into comfortable old patterns and behaviors. It may be due to stress, fatigue, or perhaps we tried to make too many changes at once. Instead of throwing in the proverbial towel and giving up on the change, try this instead—use the setback to identify triggers and regain motivation for change. Most importantly, be kind to yourself through the process, focus on your successes and build on those.  Remember, change is not a straight line and setbacks will be part of your journey.

Ultimately though, if you take anything away from reading this, please remember—change is hard, and hard things take time. But hard things are not impossible. You’ve got this!

Mary C. Sanders, FNP-C, BC-ADM, CDCES, is a nationally certified Family Nurse Practitioner and a member of the care team at Northern Light Mercy Endocrinology and Diabetes Care and Mercy Hospital’s Mattina R. Proctor Diabetes Center.