“Present you, meet future you: a healthier, wealthier, happier, smarter version of you”.
We spend a lot of time thinking about the future and about our future selves. More often than not, we envision our future selves as a better version of our current selves because of some change that we are going to make. Sure, we may be sitting on the couch now but our future self will be out running 5 miles after work. Sure, we may be smoking now but our future self will have given up and saved a pile of money in the process.
Health psychologists have long recognised that there is a gap between our ‘intentions’ and our ‘actions’. While we may ‘intend’ to exercise more, the ‘action’ of actually getting out and exercising regularly is much harder to pull off.
So how do we get from sitting on the couch envisioning our future fit selves to pulling on the running gear?
One way may be to predict, and plan for, our failures in advance.
Psychologists have developed a set of steps that most people go through before making a lasting change. This is called the Transtheoretical Model [1,2].
Take Joe, a heavy smoker for the last 10 years. Joe doesn’t have any intention of quitting smoking. He is in what is called the ‘Precontemplation’ Stage. But, if Joe was to quit, the steps he would go through over the next few years may look something like this:
- Precontemplation: Joe knows he’s a smoker, he knows smoking is bad for him but he has no intention whatsoever of stopping.
- Contemplation: Joe used to be an avid five-a-side footballer. He tried to play football in the garden with his son last week and got a huge shock when he couldn’t run a few metres without wheezing and coughing. His doctor told him that if he stops smoking now he can still regain his fitness. He has a hazy plan to stop but not any time soon.
- Preparation: Joe’s cough is getting worse, his wife told him she is sick of the smell and his son has started to cry whenever he smokes because he knows it’s bad for his dad. Joe makes a commitment to stop within the next month. He Googles smoking cessation courses and nicotine replacement therapies as a first step.
- Action: Joe has stocked up on nicotine patches and has joined a supportive smoking cessation group. He had his last cigarette on Sunday night and feels optimistic.
This is the danger zone.
This is the stage of change at which Joe is most likely to change forever and also most likely to fail. Why? Because stopping smoking hasn’t yet become a habit.
Joe finds it relatively easy not to smoke when he is at home on a Sunday night with his family but what about when he is in the pub with friends? Or during a stressful day at work? There are a lot of pitfalls in this stage that Joe has to overcome. Thankfully, research has shown one way to help and we discuss this in our next blog.
- Prochaska, J. and DiClemente, C. (1983) Stages and processes of self-change in smoking: toward an integrative model of change. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology , 5, 390–395.
- Prochaska, J.O., DiClemente, C.C., & Norcross, J.C. (1992). In search of how people change: Applications to the addictive behaviors. American Psychologist, 47, 1102-1114. PMID: 1329589.