How many times have you made a New Year’s resolution, started off strong, and then let it drop a month and a half later? I see it happen all the time with my patients, my friends and family, and even myself. We know there are changes we want to make, but we’re not sure how to go about it. So, we wait until the end of the year and make grand declarations of change, but have no real plan on how to sustain these changes long term. And it simply doesn’t work.

So many women I know are struggling to change something about their lives. They know that what they have been doing isn’t working – they feel lousy, they’re miserable, they constantly think “something’s got to give!” but they don’t know where to start. I’ve been there myself – stuck in an unhappy marriage, struggling to keep up with all the expectations I’d set for myself, battling against extra pounds and extreme exhaustion. I made it through – but it didn’t happen all at once, and I learned a lot along the way. That’s why I am so committed to helping other women – I know how difficult it can be, how alone I felt. And I know how amazing it is to come out on the other side feeling fantastic, joyful, and in control!

Do you ever wonder why, if women know what it is they want to change, they don’t just do it? Have you been frustrated by your own inability to just make up your mind and become the woman you want to be? I understand – I’ve felt that too. I’ve learned that it’s not as simple as that – but it’s not impossible either!

There are so many steps to take – emotional, psychological, and physical – and it can be overwhelming to consider them all at once. Let’s take a look at what some barriers might be, and then talk about small steps you can take to get started on the road to success.

Why is Lasting Change So Difficult?

“Step out of the history that is holding you back. Step into the new story you are willing to create.” – Oprah Winfrey

So many of my patients tell me they want to change, but have tried and failed so many times they think they’ll never be able to follow through on their goals. One of the things I have discovered throughout my years in practice is that to create change that lasts, it’s essential to discover what’s holding you back. Is it fear or failure? Old stories from your past? A cycle that’s gone on so long you can’t even remember where it began? Taking some time to examine the possibilities and discover where the negative pattern began can be the first, most important step in charting a new course.

It can be terrifying to look back into your past to discover where the messages you push on yourself came from. But isn’t it even scarier to think about never changing at all? Problem behaviors often develop as coping mechanisms for messages you received from your parents. And they may have been what helped you survive childhood, but it’s time to realize you don’t need them any longer. You have the power to change anything if you commit to putting in the work – and to facing challenges head on. Barriers are inevitable, but when you are determined, they can be moved.

Try, Try Again

New Year’s Day seems like such a great time to begin your journey towards a goal, doesn’t it? And it is – but you have to be willing to keep on trying. So many people make grand resolutions – they’re going to quit smoking cold turkey, give up sugar entirely, or leave their bad relationship behind without a backwards glance. They start off full speed ahead, but when they hit the first road block, they abandon the effort altogether.

Did you know, though, that the people most successful at change are those who won’t give up? “Failing,” isn’t your cue to stop trying. I’ve seen it time and again in my practice – the women who take a deep breath and keep on going are the ones who create exactly the lives they want. I’m not talking about willpower, I’m talking about being truly ready to make changes – big or small – that will lead you to the life you deserve.

Understanding the Stages of Change

We can’t stop change, but we can learn to embrace it. Making big changes certainly takes a lot of courage, but often the first step is recognizing that change needs to happen in the first place. And it’s not an overnight thing: change takes six to eight weeks to become a real habit. It’s also important to realize that sometimes you’ll take two steps forward and one step back. Remember, you’re still a step ahead of where you were when that happens!

Just as there are many stages of grief, permanent change is a process with distinct phases. These stages occur naturally, and are fluid – you may move back and forth between them, quickly or slowly – there is no wrong order. But it’s important to be aware of these stages, so you can be prepared to deal with the difficulties you will certainly encounter.

James Prochaska, PhD and his colleagues detailed the progress of people who successfully changed their lives in their breakthrough book, Changing for Good. The six stages they identified are universal; they can’t be skipped, and you do not have control over the speed at which you progress through them, the authors found. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t understand them. If you know what is to come, you can be prepared to handle it. Let’s take a quick look at each of the identified stages:

1. Precontemplation: Inability to see the problem

In this stage, you are unable to identify the issue, while those close to you can likely see the problem clearly. Denial and resistance to change are likely a part of your story, and you might have no awareness of the behaviors that are holding you back. You could be in this stage for a very long time – years, or even decades.

2. Contemplation: Mulling it over

In this stage, you might have begun to notice or acknowledge the problem, but you simply aren’t quite ready to make changes. You may have come to the realization – on your own, or prompted by a loved one – that change is necessary. You may quickly switch back and forth between precontemplation and contemplation, until you are finally ready to tackle the problem.

3. Preparation: Making a plan

In this stage you begin to examine the steps needed to make change happen, and make a detailed plan of action. This might include sharing your intentions with others, such as announcing that you’ll no longer be eating sweets, and taking specific action like throwing away any treats left in the house.

4. Action: Taking the leap

This stage can be both exhilarating and terrifying. It’s a large leap forward, but it’s important to remember that this stage is not the actual change. Real, permanent change, as I said before, takes six to eight weights to become reality. If you jump in too fast, you might get overwhelmed and give up completely. That’s why I recommend choosing just a couple of action steps – maybe passing on dessert after dinner instead of banishing sweets all the time – to get you started. Success in these small areas can deliver the confidence you need to continue moving toward your end goal.

5. Maintenance: Realizing there’s no end date

People often miss this stage, but it’s an essential part of the process. Not paying attention to practicing your new way of being can set you up to head right back into your old, destructive patterns. You will encounter challenges – and they may last a long time. But with the right support, you don’t have to turn back to your old ways – find people who will help you on your journey without pushing or nagging.

6. Termination or Recycling: Learning from setbacks

For a lucky few, this is the stage where you never look back. Your old behaviors are in the past and you’re never tempted to revert. But more often, people remain in the maintenance phase indefinitely. Relapse can occur even years later, but when you stop to examine why they happened, you can return to your “new normal” quickly. Even if you find yourself tempted, even occasionally slipping backwards, if you come right back to your new habits, you’ve accomplished real change.

Moving Towards Change in the New Year

Okay, so you’ve made up your mind – this is the year the changes you make will stick! I’m proud of your commitment, and I want to help you succeed. Here are some tips to help you begin your journey.

Start small

Your goal might be huge – say you want to lose 50 pounds, quit a twenty-year smoking habit, or break free from a bad relationship that has lasted more than a decade. You won’t be able to accomplish your final goal all at once, and thinking about the enormity of it might find you stalling before you even get going. Instead, stay focused on any small steps that can move you towards your goal. Cut back by one soda or one cigarette per day, or change one small thing about the way you relate to your partner. When you’ve maintained that step, try another baby step forward. And if you go find yourself sliding backwards, remember you always have another chance. Every moment is a new opportunity to change.

Surround yourself with support

Staying optimistic is a key factor in success, but you probably won’t be able to do it without support. One of the big mistakes I see women make is thinking they have to do everything on their own. Research has shown that social support positively correlates with successful life change. Pursue change with a partner – perhaps a friend who also wants to change the way she’s eating – or just find someone you trust to help you along your journey.

Plan for change

Permanent change can’t happen without your commitment, and planning ahead is one of the best ways to help you be successful. A friend’s husband tried to quit smoking several times, but he always tried to do it on the spur of the moment. He finally realized, when his six-year-old son asked him to quit, that he had to plan ahead. When he told his son that, the child went to get a calendar to choose a day. Inspired, the man chose a day a week later, gathered up his smoking supplies, and gave them all away. It’s seven years later, and he hasn’t smoked since. Paying attention to your environment can be a vital piece of the planning stages – removing temptation is easier than simply trying to resist it when it’s staring you in the face. Letting others know your boundaries – and standing up for yourself if they aren’t being respected, is also an important part of the planning process.

Find positive alternatives

It’s easy to find yourself obsessing over what you can’t do if you haven’t found something as enjoyable – or even more so – to do instead. When I started dancing, I realized that it was incredibly freeing because it’s impossible to think of anything else when focused on getting the steps right. Whenever I’m on the dance floor, other worries are gone. Keeping yourself busy with lively, engaging, and physical activities can help you pass the time until the urge to indulge in a negative habit passes.

Look ahead

Create a vision of who you want to become. Once you realize there’s a need for change, it’s important to also know why. Wandering aimlessly doesn’t get you any closer to a destination, but if you have a clear picture of where you want to go, you can figure out what steps are necessary to get you there.

Find new perspective

Self-awareness is essential when changing old patterns. Give yourself permission to take the time you need to examine your behavior and discover what you want to change. And don’t forget – you deserve to do this for yourself. Set aside the worry about how your behaviors will impact others and give yourself permission to put yourself first.

Looking at how the behavior you want to change impacts your life (for instance, how do you feel after bingeing on sugar?) instead of focusing solely on the behavior itself can be helpful. Understanding the immediate consequences of the behaviors, and the impact they have on your life, can be a powerful motivator to change.

Celebrate successes and reward yourself

Making small changes can be incredibly satisfying, especially if you give yourself the well-deserved pats on the back along the way. Just remember not to sabotage your progress by making your rewards counterproductive to your goal. If you’ve lost two pounds in a week, celebrating by eating a piece of cake doesn’t make much sense!

Believe That Change in the New Year is Possible

Yesterday is behind you, but your future is a wide-open space full of possibilities. Create the picture of who you want to be, and envision yourself there. It’s a technique used by successful people everywhere, and it can work for you too. When you tell yourself repeatedly that you can accomplish your goals, you’ll begin to believe that it’s possible. But remember, change is a long and complex process, so be gentle with yourself. So often I see women who treat everyone around them with kindness, but forget to extend that to themselves. Don’t let old stories and minor setbacks derail you. Celebrate small triumphs, reach out to others when obstacles present themselves, and remember that you deserve to be the woman you want to be.

Begin the new year with a healthier outlook, such as starting a good pharmaceutical multi vitamin and fish oil. Remember baby steps.

Happy New Year!