“Everyone who got where he is has had to begin where he was.” – Robert Louis Stevenson

The beginning of a new calendar year stirs up a variety of optimistic and pessimistic thoughts and emotions about making meaningful lifestyle changes for many people. Nostalgic reflections about your identity, goals, and ambitions from years passed may leave you with any number of unique internal experiences… feeling proud of positive developments, immobilized by stagnation, or motivated to learn from your mistakes. Wherever you find your thoughts and emotions drifting within yourself at the dawn of 2013, remember that each moment offers the opportunity to reawaken your sense of purpose and vitality in life.

Try letting go of the urge to label healthy lifestyle changes as “New Year’s resolutions.” A lifestyle change is about developing a new way of being in the world, with others, and within yourself. This type of mental, emotional, and behavior shift offers the possibility of lasting change… real growth. Longstanding changes in how you think about yourself, interactions with others, and events in your life don’t happen overnight, but it is possible to make those changes if you are informed, willing, and committed.

Useful Tips for Making Lifestyle Changes

Consider the following five tips from the American Psychological Association (APA) as you begin the process of making lifestyle changes and developing healthy ways of thinking and behaving.

(1) Develop a concrete plan of action

Gain clarity about the specific lifestyle or behavioral change that you would like to put into practice. One way to gain insight into areas of your life that may benefit from a “tune-up” include conducting a brief assessment of your overall functioning and well-being. Take a moment to assess the quality of your (1) health (physical, mental, and emotional), (2) relationships (family, friends, romance, and colleagues), (3) work-life balance, (4) stress levels, (5) self-care and leisure activities, (6) academic or professional functioning, (7) insert your personal life values…

Develop a concrete plan of action by setting specific short-term and long-term goals and the behaviors you will enact to reach your valued goals. For instance, if you wish to implement a lifestyle change of improving your physical health through exercise, be specific when setting goals. Try writing down details about the type of exercise you will engage in, the specific days and times you will do it, how long it will last, and so forth. Direct the same level of commitment to your personalized plan of action as you would to attending a doctor’s appointment or business meeting. Depending on how you choose to look at it, genuine commitment to your personally prescribed behavioral goals is much more “important” than getting to the dentist on time.

(2) Start out small

Now that you’ve successfully identified the lifestyle change you are going to make, break it down into small pieces. It’s natural to get a bit carried away by the excitement of making a meaningful change in your life. This type of passion and optimism can be wonderfully empowering! Just remember that your enthusiasm about your new lifestyle change is springing forth from a healthy part of yourself that deeply desires a successful outcome. One of the best ways to ensure a positive outcome is to break down your realistic goals into small steps that you can clearly define, record, and measure over time.

(3) Focus on changing only one behavior at a time

Many of us are aware of certain aspects of our lifestyles that could benefit from proactive behavioral changes. For some people, increased awareness of areas for personal growth can lead to an overzealous desire to make many small changes, a few major changes, or some combination thereof all at once. This is a common method of inadvertently “getting in your own way” when it comes to personal development. Allow yourself to fully embrace your enthusiasm and motivation to make meaningful change(s), while simultaneously maintaining a centered attitude of mindfulness.

This is an example of being realistic and optimistic. It is quite possible for these two attitudes to go hand-in-hand. Focus on just one specific, realistic, and measurable behavior to change at any given time. Allow yourself a moment to sit back and congratulate yourself for your successes – however big or small – and cultivate deeper self-awareness of areas within which you wish to see greater improvement. Continue to challenge yourself and stay motivated! Notice how each successful behavioral change builds momentum and moves you closer to acquiring healthy habits that don’t require as much conscious effort.

(4) Get a friend/partner involved

Consciously recruit a friend, partner, family member, or acquaintance who is interested in making a similar lifestyle change. When you seek out a “buddy”  to accompany you along your personal journey toward healthy lifestyle changes, your chances of success have the potential to increase. This concept is similar to that of a personal trainer who is right by your side as you reach toward your fitness goals… encouraging you and pushing you to reach the finish line.

When you choose to include a “buddy” in your own healthy lifestyle change routine, you are providing yourself with an important source of accountability and support. This form of social support has great potential to positively impact both parties. For instance, imagine that you made a commitment to meet your friend, spouse, or family member at the gym tomorrow morning to exercise. Picture that person waiting outside in the cold for you to arrive. Does this scenario feel a bit different than it might if you had no one waiting for you at the gym to hold you accountable… someone depending on you to show up?

(5) Ask for support along the way

It can be challenging for some of us to actively seek out help and support, especially when beginning the process of making a meaningful lifestyle change. When you choose to take a risk by reaching out to a supportive person in your life, your own strength and commitment to change will grow. Consider how important it is for you to successfully reach the short-term and long-term goals involved in making your healthy lifestyle change. Imagine how different your overall well-being, relationships, and outlook on the world might be if you really make changes that are important to you. Support from loved ones, friends, and family may be the key to a successful outcome. If you find yourself experiencing ongoing struggles or feeling overwhelmed during the process of making healthy lifestyle changes, consider seeking support from a mental health professional.

As you embark down the path toward making healthy lifestyle changes, remember that few things of great value come easily. Meaningful change requires physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral investment on your part. We are all works in progress and will quite likely stumble a few times (or maybe even many times) along the way. No one is “perfect” and attachment to the idealized concept of mortal perfection can lead to a chronic sense of disappointment. It is attainable to consciously choose thoughts and behaviors that will lead you closer to reaching your unique potential. If you are ready to begin the process of change, make a commitment to begin today. Take just one step in the direction you truly wish to go.

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Free downloadable behavior change plans and logs from McGraw-Hill Higher Education.

American Psychological Association. (n.d.). Making lifestyle changes that last. [Psychology Help Center]. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/lifestyle-changes.aspx

Featured image: Life’s Options by Pink Sherbet Photography / CC BY 2.0

About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.

1 Comment

  1. Mid-Week Balance: 16 January 2013 on January 16, 2013 at 7:03 am

    […] Did you boycott the resolution train this year?  Or did you set a resolution (intention, focus, goal, you name it) and already feel like it has slipped from your grasp?  Well, these suggestions from Laura Schenck, MA offer some concrete guidance for increasing your chances of helping positive change stick. […]

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