The last few days of December mean one thing--you've only got a limited amount of time left to declare what type of major life change you're going to make when the calendar rolls over to the new year.

Whether you insist this will be the year that you finally have a beach-ready body in time for summer or you decide that it's finally time to get a grip on your financial situation, January 1st is filled with motivation and determination to do better.

Unfortunately, the motivation usually dwindles within a few days and the good intentions never translate into change.

Some people blame their unmet resolutions on a lack of willpower. Others rationalize their lack of progress by saying things like, "I was never meant to be thin anyway. I'm big boned."

The truth is, most resolutions are doomed before they even start. And failure usually has little do with external factors (like my schedule is too busy) or internal factors (like I'm too weak). Instead, resolutions usually fail due to their timing.

January 1st is an arbitrary date chosen by someone else (whomever invented the calendar). But there's societal pressure to create a resolution according to that schedule.

For a change to be effective, you have to be ready to change--and readiness is a process. It's highly unlikely that your readiness to change will just happen to occur on  January 1st.

The Right Time to Change Your Life

The Transtheoretical Model of Change was originally applied to substance abuse. The model states an individual who makes the choice to quit drinking, smoking, or using drugs will go through five stages of change.

The theory is based on the notion that you don't permanently change your behavior on a whim. You need to experience a mental shift that propels and maintains your behavioral changes.

If you change your behavior too early--before a real mental shift has taken place--your new habits won't stick.

The model has since been applied to a variety of other changes, outside of substance abuse.

It's a principle I often use in my therapy office (as do many other therapists). The model can be applied to anyone making a behavior change, like losing weight or ending an unhealthy relationship.

The Stages of Change

According to the Transtheoretical Model of Change, self-growth and lasting change happen in these five stages:

1. Pre-contemplation - You don't think you need to change. Other people may express concerns, but you'll deny that a problem exists. A doctor who tells you that you should lose weight won't likely inspire you to change your diet when you're pre-contemplative. But, your doctor may be able to spark your interest by sharing the potential consequences of staying the same---like the health risks you face when you're overweight and inactive.

2. Contemplation - You recognize the potential consequences of not changing, but aren't yet fully committed to making a change. So while you might recognize your job is in jeopardy due to your lack of sales, you might still be second guessing your ability to tackle a new sales strategy. Until you see that the benefits outweigh the risks, you won't move on to the next stage.

3. Preparation - You create a plan to change. If you're tired of being in debt, you might start selling things to get rid of your payments. Or, if you're intent on losing weight, you might start planning your new diet and thinking about how you'll eat healthy at home, at work, and in restaurants. A solid plan will set you up for success.

4. Action - This is when those strategies you created during the preparation stage get put into place. Whether you start hitting the gym after work, or you trade in your cigarettes for carrot sticks, there will be a clear behavior change.

5. Maintenance - Making change is easy. Maintaining those changes is much more difficult. During this stage, you'll monitor your progress and plan ahead for possible pitfalls. If you've started a new diet, think about how you're going to stick to your diet when you're on vacation or how you'll respond when you slip up once in a while by eating a piece of cake or gorging on the all-you-can-eat buffet.

Start Your New Year's Resolution Whenever You're Ready

So when you should you launch your New Year's resolution? Whenever you're ready to make a change.

You'll know you're ready to take action once you're committed to creating a change and you've prepared yourself for the realities you're going to face.  

So whether you're ready to commit to changing your habits on January 21st, or you decide to start your resolution in July, don't crumble under the pressure to change on January 1st. If you aren't truly ready to shift your habits, you aren't likely to succeed.