How to Make a New Year’s Resolution Work

Are you contemplating a significant lifestyle change this year?  Quitting smoking for good, or really getting fit, not just losing a few pounds and gaining them back later?

Research shows that making real changes in life is not just a matter of motivation, commitment, or not being “lazy”.  Change requires skills and knowledge that can be learned and applied for successfully carrying out the most rigorous of New Year’s resolutions.

In his 2016 book Changing to Thrive, James Prochaska summarizes his 40 years of research into change processes that really work for people’s lives.  He identifies five stages that people go through when making a successful lifestyle change:

  • Precontemplation (Not Ready for Change) – People aren’t planning on taking action in the near future. They may be unaware that their behavior is problematic. Or they may feel trapped in a life situation that makes change impossible.
  • Contemplation (Getting Ready for Change) – People are beginning to recognize the negative effects of their behavior. They start to look at the pros and cons of their bad habit versus pros and cons of making a change.
  • Preparation (Ready to Change) – People make a plan for action and they may begin to make small steps to prepare for the change.
  • Action – People are actively modifying their problem behavior or are acquiring healthy new habits to replace unhealthy ones.
  • Maintenance – People have been able to sustain change for six months or more and are working to maintain the healthy habit(s).

At each of these stages, there are particular barriers that may be encountered.  Understanding where you are at in the progression of stages, and what resources may be needed for each stage is crucial to making progress.

At the Precontemplation stage, a person is not ready to try and make a change in their life.   They may have a vague sense that all is not right, or they may know there is a problem, but not that it can or will be solved.  At this stage, people may deny or defend rather than face up to the negative effects of their behavior on themselves and others.  If you have a friend or family member at this stage keep in mind that nagging them will not help.  Look for ways to help them face the facts about their situation, their behavior and its effects.  Gently remind them that change is possible, other people have found ways to break out of the trap they now find themselves in.  There are things we can all learn about lifestyle change that makes it more conceivable that things can get better.

At the Contemplation stage, a person is thinking about making a change.  These stages should not be rushed, each one needs careful attention.  Contemplation is a time of acknowledging the need for change and the potential of positive growth.  Consider why you haven’t changed before, what you tried that didn’t work and what are the real benefits or rewards of staying in this not-helpful place.

At the Preparation stage, you are ready to begin.  Again, many people try to rush through this stage or skip it altogether, but that will set you up for failure in the long run.  Take time to research what needs to happen.  What has been the experience of others who have taken this path?  What problems or barriers can you expect to encounter, and how can you prepare to overcome them?  Who in your support network has experience in this area and what is their advice?

At the Action stage, you start taking the planned steps toward a new you.  You are learning to control your negative behavior and establish healthy habits.  People around you can finally begin to see your change in progress (even though it’s been going on behind the scenes for some time).

At the Maintenance stage, the new lifestyle is established.  You are paying attention to your coping strategies to keep positive habits in place.  You are in a position to help others who are trying to make their own lifestyle changes.

For more about resources and tools for utilizing the Stages of Change process, see this post.



Prochaska, J.O. and Prochaska, J.M. (2016). Changing to Thrive. Center City, MN: Hazeldon Publishing.