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Change starts with small habits!

One of life’s big questions is why people remain stuck. Why is it that people indulge in unhealthy behaviors, have a desire to make positive changes, yet are unable to do so? Many, many people crave change in their life. But few are able to make definitive progress, be it losing weight, quitting addictions, or starting new habits that will lead to the accomplishment of goals.

Many people find bursts of motivation, but eventually return to old habits. Others seem to thrive in making positive changes away from unhealthy behavior, and have the willpower to stick to them. For the uninitiated, change can appear mysterious or a personality trait. However, thanks to psychological research, change isn’t elusive, but tangible. And in understanding the components of change, you’re better able to move in the direction of your choosing.

This article will explain the Stages of Change model, one of psychology’s most useful theories. This is both powerful for personal development, and for professionals looking to support others, such as coaches of fitness instructors. Let’s take a look.

What is the Stages of Change model?

The Stages of Change model (or Transtheoretical Model) was developed by James Prochaska and Carlo DiClemente in 1983, working with the Cancer Prevention Research Center. The transtheoretical model was the result of a rigorous scientific approach to behavioural change, with over 30 years of research informing the model’s structure. The co-creators initially studied the difference between people who were able to quit smoking, and those who struggled with relapses.

Eventually, Prochaska and DiClemente defined five stages people go through when focusing on health promotion and moving away from negative behavior. By closely monitoring people who could successfully implement change, they understood (as anyone who has tried to implement change can vouch for) that health behavior change isn’t a one-off process, but a cyclical, ongoing adaptation.

The Stages of Change model isn’t only descriptive, but provides a map for personal development. It’s both a theory and a practice. Research has confirmed it to be a credible model that has stood the test of time and continues to be applied in many modern settings.

The five stages of change

When I first discovered the Stages of Change model in my research at the Boston University School, I could immediately see how it applied to changes I’d made in my own life. Since then, I’ve referred back to it when contemplating different goals. I’ve used it with clients, too, and found it to be effective and reassuring. When you have a roadmap to change, somehow change itself feels easier, and the destination more attainable.

Prochaska and DiClemente’s initial model contained five stages. Since then, an additional sixth stage has been popularised, although it’s not “officially” part of the model itself. The stages are:

  • Pre-contemplation
  • Contemplation
  • Preparation
  • Action
  • Maintenance 

Below we’ll look closely at each stage, with examples for each:

1. Pre-contemplation

At this stage, people aren’t ready to consider change or accept help. They might not be fully aware of how damaging their poor health behaviors are, or they might go through spells of denial or cognitive dissonance to rationalize their choices. It’s practically impossible to support someone at this stage — people at the pre-contemplation stage are resistant to change or don’t see the worth.

Typically, at this stage, people overly focus on the drawbacks of change, without viewing the positives. They might lack a proper vision of the foreseeable future, or feel powerless to enact change through learned helplessness. 

Moving to the next stage of contemplation is a quantum leap. It usually begins with the acceptance that there is some kind of public health problem that has to be looked at honestly. 

Example 

Someone is inactive, doesn’t eat well, and has health issues. But they don’t feel the need to exercise and treat their body differently as they focus on what they have to give up — comforts and ease. They still follow the mantra: “treat yourself,” and having not exercised for a long time, it feels easier to stick to what they know.

2. Contemplation of healthy behavior

This is the point where someone has started to contemplate the pros and cons of behavioral change in a more balanced manner. They might begin to acknowledge a specific behavior is having a detrimental impact on their life and consider if it’s worth taking action to change. 

At this stage, people tend to still be indecisive. It’s quite easy to be stuck at this stage for a while, daydreaming without making any concrete steps to enact change.

Example

Following a health-scare, someone starts to reflect on their lifestyle habits and begins to question if they can make adjustments. There’s a growing sense that their current behaviors are having a negative impact, and that some form of change behavior might be necessary.  

3. Preparation stage (Determination)

This is the point of commitment and a sense of conviction that change is necessary. For some, this might come at a point of rock bottom. Others might reach the stage of feeling fed up with the status quo, and realize change needs to happen. 

This is where change moves from an idea into action, and where the most overt behavioral changes begin to take place. There’s a desire to enact positive change and full acceptance that the previous behavior is having a negative impact.

Example

(shironosov / Getty)

Someone starts making small steps towards positive change. They start researching local gyms, talking to people they know who live healthy lifestyles, watching content based on nutrition and wellness, and gathering information that will allow them to make purposeful steps forward.

4. Action – Behavior change

This is the “just do it” point in the Stages of Change model where direct action is taken. By this point, the person believes that change is possible, they feel drawn towards the benefits that these changes will make, and they have a clear plan of action. 

There are typically two approaches — giving up negative behaviors or habits or integrating new positive behaviors and habits — or a mixture of both. This stage requires an initial burst of willpower to start moving in a different direction, especially if the negative behaviors have been present for some time. 

The combination of a practical plan, and a clear understanding of the value of their goals, motivate someone to act.

Example 

Joining a gym and starting a new training routine. Cutting back on high-processed, sugary foods and alcohol, and buying whole vegetables. At this stage, positive steps are made in order to start living a healthier lifestyle, often completely new behaviors compared to how they were previously.

5. Maintenance Stages

In the Maintenance Stage, this is the point where someone has worked on new behaviors for a period of six months or more. The initial hurdle has been overcome, and the new behaviors are becoming easier, and more habitual. 

However, this is a crucial period of time where change moves from a temporary desire to a long-term shift in lifestyle. The biggest challenge at this point is to avoid relapsing into old behaviors or losing touch with the benefits of change.

Example

Someone has been regularly going to the gym and eating well. They’ve noticed they are feeling more energized which, in turn, is adding motivation to keep going with the behavior. 

As a bonus, they’re losing weight. They’re noticing that every now and again, challenges arise — a holiday with an all-you-can-eat buffet or a spell of sickness where they can’t attend the gym. But they’re determined to bounce back and keep going.

Additional steps

Some versions of the model include both relapse and termination as additional steps. Although these weren’t recognized by Prochaska and Carlo DiClemente as part of the original model, they are an integral component of behavioral change. Both of these are worth exploring in more detail:

Relapse

This is one of the most important stages of change, and the difference between people who are able to stick to new habits, and those who return to old behaviors. When attempting to make positive change, gradual process is more durable long-term. 

The classic example is someone who sets a New Year’s resolution to get healthy, goes to the gym seven days per week, and then gives up.

Putting too much pressure on yourself to change is counterproductive. It makes change feel like a big obstacle to overcome. Gradual progress, along with the understanding that relapses happen, makes change more likely over the long run. 

The model makes room for relapses for a reason — they’re likely! But they’re all part of the process, and each time a relapse occurs, there’s a chance to learn more about where you became stuck, and what you can do differently next time.

Significantly, the model notes a difference between a lapse and a relapse. A lapse is a temporary slip-up, one that is quickly re-calibrated. A relapse is a full-blown return to old behaviors. Crucially, when lapses aren’t judged, people are more likely to return to positive habits than quit.

Termination

This additional stage is the elixir of change, the Holy Grail, the place everyone aspires to reach, the peak of the mountain. Termination is the point where the new behavior is so ingrained, and so habitual, that it’s now a part of who you are. 

There’s little willpower required to stay on track because it’s fully integrated. It’s unusual to reach this stage definitively, although not impossible.

Understanding the stages of change

How do you make sense of the Stages of Change model? One of the most important aspects of the theory is that the stages themselves don’t explain linear progress. Instead, they’re stages people tend to cycle through multiple times before a new behavior is established. 

Sometimes the model is illustrated as an upward spiral, which cycles through each stage over and over, as someone moves closer to fully integrating the new behavior. 

I’ve noticed this regularly in myself. 

For example, I might be inspired to make a positive change in my life, such as improving my German. I already acknowledge that there are benefits to this change, making my life easier in Berlin. I enter pre-contemplation by starting to research courses, then take action by learning new vocabulary or taking time with microlearning sessions on an app.

But then other areas of life get busy, then I lose momentum with the new behaviors, and return to the contemplation stage. The benefit of the model is that you’re able to see where you’re at and learn from each cycle. For example, the next time I take action, I have more experience, I know how I learn best, and at the preparation stage, I research approaches to language learning that will serve me long-term.

Applying the stages of change

Out of a number of popular theories distilled from psychology, I feel the Stages of Change model is the most practical. It removes much of the mystery around change, and provides guidance for people to feel empowered to make positive changes, and boost their self-awareness. I always smile to myself when I notice what stage I’m at with a certain goal or behavior.

I tend to use the model in a few different steps. It begins by asking myself a few questions, such as:

  • What behavior would I like to change? I begin by getting clarity around the behavior by writing it down explicitly. 
  • Am I ready to make this change? This is an important question. The model applies to those willing to change. You can live your entire life stuck in the pre-contemplation stage! Consider whether the time is right for you to make this change. If you’re not, that’s okay. For example, it’s probably not the best time to start an intense exercise regime while moving home.
  • What stage do I estimate I’m at on the model? Once I know I’m ready and I’ve identified the behavior, I estimate where I’m at. This gives clarity about where I’m going next.
  • What steps can I take to move to the next stage? I might acknowledge I’m in the contemplation stage. Or identify that this was a behavior I’ve successfully implemented in the past, and now I’m in relapse. Wherever I’m at, I then look at future stages and make a note of the steps I need to take to get there.

I tend to follow this process for different goals in my life. I don’t try to make significant changes in all life areas at once either, but intuitively follow what feels like the best choice at that time. As different changes become integrated, then it’s easier to launch into new commitments. For example, once you establish a fitness regime, then you move on to cutting back on unhealthy habits.

In conclusion

Change isn’t easy. It takes resilience, a clear plan of action, willpower, and an inspired vision of the benefits positive change will have on your life. The model, though, is a gift in allowing you to take a structured approach to change. Even better, it gives insight into the risk of lapses and relapses along the way, whilst approaching change with a growth mindset.

Whether you’re looking to get healthier, quit smoking, acquire new skills, reduce stress levels, or write a book, understanding the stages gives you an advantage. Slowly but surely, changes add up to the sum total of your life. The more you demonstrate your capability to change, the more you believe in yourself. The more you believe in yourself, the more you begin to dream about what’s possible.

Change starts with small habits. But before you know it, change will lead you to a genuine life-changing transformation. If that’s not worth contemplating, I don’t know what is. And for a little motivation, check out these quotes about change to get you started!