The start of the new year often comes setting goals and changing habits. Starting January 1, you will stop doing X and start doing Y. You’re committed to making the change, so it should be easy. And maybe it is for the first couple of weeks. Until you fall back into your old routine, take a step back in progress, and decide you ultimately just can’t change.

Setting goals and changing habits isn’t necessarily easy, but it is definitely achievable. Let’s approach it from the viewpoint of someone who wants to change their consumption of drugs or alcohol (though the information below applies to any goal you want to set or habit you want to change). Whether it’s to quit for Dry January, to use in long-term moderation, or to be totally abstinent, you will benefit from an understanding of the stages of change, how long it takes to form a habit, how to establish a goal, and what to do if you make a mistake. Changing a behavior still might not be easy, but you’ll be better prepared for the journey, which makes success more realistic.

The Stages of Changing a Habit

“It’s very important to understand that it’s very natural to not want to make the change,” says Richard Jones, Chief Clinical Officer at Youturn Health, “and there’s a process, a pretty predictable process, that people go through.” Speaking in Youturn Health’s Individual Support course, which is designed to help people evaluate and change their relationship with their drug an alcohol use, Jones explains that change isn’t a single event but a series of stages that include:

  • Pre-contemplation: You don’t think the habit you want to change is an issue yet. You are not considering a change. You have fun drinking and feel you do it responsibly. Maybe you miss a few obligations because of your use, but you don’t see it as a problem.
  • Contemplation: You identify that something about this habit isn’t right, and you’re debating whether it’s a problem. It’s possible that this problem is causing issues in your life (e.g., your marriage or at work). For example, a drug test for work came back positive for marijuana, and you have to deal with the disciplinary repercussions. You’re considering whether you should give up smoking marijuana entirely or just “be smarter” about when you use.
  • Preparation: You have identified that a behavior is an issue, and you want to make some changes. You start thinking about how to make the change. You’ve accepted that your alcohol use is risky and you need to cut back. You outline boundaries behaviors to change that will reduce your alcohol consumption.
  • Action: You put your plan in play. You change your routine to cut back on your use and avoid triggers that make you want to use. For example, if you smoke marijuana when you’re bored, you start to plan regular activities that get you out of the house and active.
  • Maintenance: This stage is when the change goes from an intentional behavior to part of your lifestyle.

How to Set Your Goal

What if you’re stuck in the Contemplation phase? You’re not sure if the habit is really a problem or if you need to make a change. Jones explains you can use a Decisional Balance technique to weigh the pros and cons. Divide a piece of paper into a quadrant and list the topic you want to set a goal around (e.g., marijuana use) and then start thinking about the issue. Fill out the plusses and minuses of each goal in the quadrant in the following way:

  • Top left quadrant: List the pros of continuing use.
  • Top right quadrant: List the cons of continuing use.
  • Bottom left quadrant: List the pros of not using.
  • Bottom right quadrant: List the cons of not using.

Listing out the pros and cons of specific behaviors in this way helps you more clearly identify what the goal should be.

Tips for Changing Habits

Now you may be in the Preparation phase. How do you plan to change? First it helps to understand that a habit is a set pathway in our brain. Jones likens it to grooves in the snow from skis. It’s easier to keep your skis in the grooves than it is to cut a new path. “Our brain operates through this process, neural pathways,” says Jones. “The brain fires from one cell to the other. A thought leads to an action, and over and over again, that creates a pathway. A way of doing things. Think of it as a roadway. And the default setting will be to go down that pathway. That’s called a habit…what you need to do is you need to replace that, or change that, or rewire that.”

Jones suggests the following tips for changing habits around drug and alcohol consumption:

  • Break up your routine. If your habit is to go to the bar after work, go to the gym instead. If you smoke marijuana when you’re bored, then get out and be active; go on a hike or to a bookstore. Find something you like to do and spend time doing that.
  • Get support. Go to a recovery support meeting, connect with other people who’ve had the same struggles, and learn what they did to break their habits. Or, enlist the help of a loved one who can help keep you focused on your goal.
  • Redirect your thinking. If you have a thought that you want to have a beer, identify it and redirect it into another thought and activity (e.g., read a book, prayer, meditation) that will push that old habit out of the way.

“Identify your period of time when the habit kicks in and replace it with some other habit,” Jones advises. “If you do that enough, over and over and over again, then what will happen is that you’ll have a new roadway or a new pathway established.”

Don’t Give Up

So now your plan is launched and you’re doing it. You’re actively working to change your habit. Congratulations! Feel good about the progress you’ve made. And if you make a mistake, it doesn’t mean change is impossible. Get back to your plan of action, enlist support, and keep going. Beware the Abstinence Violation Effect.

“The first thing to understand with any change process is that it’s very common to make progress and then have a step back,” Jones explains. “Two steps forward, one step back. It’s not a straight line, it tends to be more of a circle, and then you get it. And that’s with any change. The problem is with human beings, when they’re not successful in the change, they tend to throw the towel in. It’s called the Abstinence Violation Effect,” which is the tendency to give up after a misstep. If your goal was abstienence and you had a drink, you may think “I can’t change, I might as well not try” and binge drink.

Jones cautions that “we have to fight against that…if you make a mistake along the way, you have to persevere in this process. You have to understand that if you stick to it, you will make that change, especially around substance use. There’s around a 75% success rate for people who keep coming and keep trying. So hang in there no matter what. If you fall 79 times, get up 80.”

If you have access to the Youturn Health video library, you can login and watch the whole Individual Support course for more about identifying goals, triggers, and sources of help. We also have free resources on our for Stress and BurnoutSubstance MisuseGrief and Trauma, and Suicide Prevention pages for more help.