This is the second in a three-part series about making changes in your life. Part One (found here) focused on adopting a positive mindset toward undertaking change. This post outlines the five stages of change, improving our abilities to make (and break) habits. Part Three will concentrate on how to set boundaries to create a more joyful life.
Last week, I introduced the concept of change, something that most of us struggle with at one time or another. I talked about the power of creating a positive mindset when facing change. Then I asked you to identify one small change you could make that would better your life and to take action on it.
So, how did it go? Were you able to implement the change you desired? Or did you get hung up in the details, frustrated by your feelings or overwhelmed with the process?
Most of us are successful in making changes in the short term. It’s staying the course that trips us up. We frequently revert to our original behaviors in the long term.
Why is it so difficult to affect lasting change?
Well, it turns out the psychology that underlies making change is complex. In the 1980s, researchers developed a model to describe the process. The fancy, academic name is the Transtheoretical Model, but non-academics generally call it the Stages of Change model. Although they were originally developed within the context of addiction behavior, 35 years of scientific research and empirical study shows that these five stages actually describe the process of all behavioral change.
In the past, change was thought of as a terminal event, like quitting smoking or starting a diet. However, the Stages of Change model recognizes that change is a journey which unfolds over time, passing through 5 different stages. Interestingly, how we move through change is rarely a linear progression; individuals often cycle through the stages. We can even regress to earlier stages from later ones.
Stage 1: Precontemplation (not ready)
When we are in the precontemplation stage, we are not even thinking about changing our behavior. We don't believe that we need to change and we think that anyone who suggests that we might need to change is wrong or exaggerating.
There are a multitude of reasons we remain in precontemplation. These reasons are grouped into four main categories, referred to as ‘the Four Rs’ —reluctance, rebellion, resignation and rationalization.
- Reluctant precontemplators are those of us who do not consider change out of ignorance or inertia. We are not yet fully conscious of the impact of the need for change.
- Rebellious pre contemplators are heavily invested in making our own decisions. We are resistant to being told what to do.
- Resigned precontemplators have given up hope about the possibility of change and seem overwhelmed by life. We have made many previous attempts at change and have not succeeded.
- Rationalizing precontemplators have all the answers. We always have a reason why we don’t need to change - and we’re always right.
Stage 2: Contemplation (getting ready)
After we move into the contemplation stage, we are preparing to make a change, typically within six months. However, as we think about change we are highly ambivalent. Contemplation is not a commitment. Some of us perform a risk-reward analysis. Others consider the pros and cons of our behavior, and the pros and cons of changing it. Still others think about the previous attempts we have made to change, and what has caused us to fail in the past.
Stage 3: Determination (ready)
When we decide to take action in the immediate future, usually within one month, we have reached the determination stage. We have weighed the pros and cons and the balance has tipped in favor of change. Not all of our ambivalence has been resolved, but what remains is no longer an insurmountable barrier. We are committed to change and have created a realistic plan. We anticipate problems and pitfalls and come up with concrete solutions. We may turn to the expertise of a coach in guiding us to develop a manageable plan and to set ourselves up for success.
Stage 4: Action
This is where we put our plan into action. Often, we make a public commitment, seeking support from family and friends and establishing external accountability. It can be very helpful to know that others are watching and cheering us on. As we implement our plan, we begin to see success! We need to continually take stock and make adjustments along the way, steps that a coach can help us with. The more we succeed with change, the more our self-confidence, determination and hope increase. The action stage normally takes three to six months to complete. Change requires consistency. We are building a new pattern of behavior over time.
Stage 5: Maintenance
The real test of change is sustaining our new behavior over time. This stage of change is called maintenance. We have established a new habit. The threat of returning to our former patterns becomes less intense and less frequent. Researchers estimate that maintenance lasts from six months to about five years. This means we need to remain on guard. The possibility of sliding back into our ‘old ways’ remains. If we feel strong temptation and fail to cope with it successfully, we have relapsed. We can benefit from looking at relapse as a learning opportunity, always remembering to be kind to ourselves. Experiencing relapse often strengthens a person’s determination to re-initiate the change process.
Just because I care, I’m sharing a bonus stage. You’re welcome.
Stage 6: Termination
Termination occurs when we are no longer tempted to return to our prior behavior; we have achieved 100% self-efficacy. Whether we are depressed, anxious, bored, lonely, angry, or stressed, we are sure that we will not return to unhealthy habits as a way of coping. Our new behavior has become an automatic habit. Some examples of this are immediately buckling our seatbelt when we get in a car or taking our medication at the same time every day. We do not think about these behaviors; they are instinctive.
Knowledge is power, people. I hope that knowing the Stages of Change will help you succeed in creating healthy habits - or breaking unhealthy ones! If you’re ready to undertake change and feel like coaching might be right for you, we would love to help!