Lots of people make New Year's resolutions. Some are related to fitness and health, while others may be financial or personal. But most don't make it past Valentine's Day.

Why? To put it in one word, the answer is habit. Most people just aren't prepared to realize how much conscious work goes into changing their bad habits.

The power of habits

We all have habits. They can be our servants, helping us to get things done accurately and efficiently. Or we can be their slaves, being dragged ever downward into ruin.

But they only change through conscious effort. If you ever want to really succeed with your resolutions, you must realize that the bad habits that have gotten you where you are are just that --habits.

Habits are what you do without having to even think about it. They are personal lifestyle patterns that have become the "norm" for you. They require very little intellectual or emotional energy, so if you allow yourself to operate on autopilot you will always revert to them. Therefore, the secret to success is replacing bad habits with good habits. Then, even without your conscious will being involved, you will be taking those actions that contribute to your success.

But getting to this place isn't usually easy. It involves quite a bit of intellectual and emotional energy, and the new actions will almost certainly feel uncomfortable or "funny" until they become ingrained. And that "ingraining" process generally follows four steps.

Unconsciously incompetent

The first step involves asking yourself, "Where are my habits taking me?"

Because, until you become consciously aware of what you are habitually doing, you won't make any effort to change it for the better. You may be overeating or not exercising regularly, but it hasn't crossed your mind yet that this is a habit pattern that will likely take you to a place you don't want to be. For our habits are always taking us somewhere. The question is where? The accumulation of equity (physically, financially, spiritually, whatever) will either be there or it will not be there. Life accumulates through your habits. This is the stage people are in before they resolve to make a change.

Consciously incompetent

This can be a challenging stage, but it is not usually as much as the next one. You're not taking consistent action yet, but you are "thinking" about it and perhaps planning for when might be the best time to try and implement the changes.

The real problem usually comes when you get down on yourself for making poor decisions that got you where you are. Don't give in to that wrong focus. You've become aware of the problem, and know you need to make a change. Just don't wait too long.

Consciously competent

This is often the most uncomfortable stage for it is the one where you are still "programmed" to follow the bad habit, and must consciously choose to not follow it.

Just be aware, these feelings are normal, and it may take several months before you move into the next stage. You are doing the right thing now. Hurray! But it takes a real force of your will. Your biggest temptation will be to just "bag it," because it is hard work and you usually haven't accumulated enough time yet to really see the good results. But if you'll just hang on, it does get easier.

Unconsciously competent

This is the stage where the right behavior is a habit. Yes, you can reach this point. It is the place where healthy foods really are the most appealing option to you. It is the place where not exercising, or going to the gym, seems funny to you. This is the point you want to reach, where exercise and other healthy behaviors take less mental and emotional effort than going back to your old ways. You have reprogrammed your mind and your entire self-image. Congratulations!

In summary, recognize that changing habits is hard. When you run on autopilot in the "consciously competent" stage you will revert to your old habits. This doesn't mean you are weak or your resolution is useless, it just means that habits are hard to break. Focus on the next short-term goal and not the day-to-day difficulty. Your mind and body will come around, and it will become easier.

Thomas Morrison is a fitness coordinator at Bradley Wellness Center.

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