The Stages of Change

Behavior Change: Getting Started

There are several different stages of change when trying to reach a goal.
Achieving your goals might not be easy, but understanding the stages of change can help you better understand how to achieve them.. Image: Iker /

Anyone who has ever made and broken a New Year’s Resolution can appreciate the difficulty of behavior change. Making a lasting change in behavior is rarely a simple process, and usually involves a substantial commitment of time, effort and emotion.

Whether you want to lose weight, stop smoking, or accomplish another goal, there is no single solution that works for everyone. You may have to try several different techniques, often through a process of trial-and-error, in order to achieve your goal. It is during this period that many people become discouraged and give up on their behavior change goals. The key to maintaining your goals is to try new techniques and find ways to stay motivated.

Change might not come easy, but psychologists have developed a number of ways to effectively help people change their behavior. Many of these techniques are used by therapists, physicians, and teachers. Researchers have also proposed theories to explain how change occurs. One of these theories, known as the Stages of Change model, has been used to help people understand the change process. This model demonstrates that change is rarely easy and often requires a gradual progression of small steps toward a larger goal.

Understanding the elements of change, the stages of change, and ways to work through each stage can help you achieve your goals. Learn more about the process of change through the following links listed below.

The Elements of Change

In order to succeed, you need to understand the three most important elements in changing a behavior:

  • Readiness to change - Do you have the resources and knowledge to successfully make a lasting change?
  • Barriers to change - Is there anything preventing you from changing?
  • Expect relapse - What might trigger a return to a former behavior?

One of the best-known approaches to change is known as the "Stages of Change" model, which was introduced in the late 1970's by researchers James Prochaska and Carlo DiClemente who were studying ways to help people quit smoking. The Stages of Change Model has been found to be an effective aid in understanding how people go through a change in behavior.

In this model, change occurs gradually and relapses are an inevitable part of the process of making a lifelong change. People are often unwilling or resistant to change during the early stages, but eventually develop a proactive and committed approach to changing a behavior.

Read more about each step of the stages of change model by following the link below.

Stage 1 - Precontemplation

Precontemplation Stage.

The earliest stage of change is known as precontemplation. During the precontemplation stage, people are not considering a change. People in this stage are often described as "in denial" due to claims that their behavior is not a problem.

If you are in this stage, you may feel resigned to your current state or believe that you have no control over your behavior. In some cases, people in this stage do not understand that their behavior is damaging or are under-informed about the consequences of their actions.

If you are in this stage, begin by asking yourself some questions. Have you ever tried to change this behavior in the past? How do you recognize that you have a problem? What would have to happen for you to consider your behavior a problem?

Stage 2 - Contemplation

Contemplation Stage.

During this stage, people become more and more aware of the potential benefits of making a change, but the costs tend to stand out even more. This conflict creates a strong sense of ambivalence about changing.

Because of this uncertainty, the contemplation stage of change can last months or even years. In fact, many people never make it past the contemplation phase. During this stage, you may view change as a process of giving something up rather than a means of gaining emotional, mental, or physical benefits.

If you are contemplating a behavior change, there are some important questions to ask yourself: Why do you want to change? Is there anything preventing you from changing? What are some things that could help you make this change?

Stage 3 - Preparation

Preparation Stage.

During the preparation stage, you might begin making small changes to prepare for a larger life change. For example, if losing weight is your goal, you might switch to lower-fat foods. If your goal is to quit smoking, you might switch brands or smoke less each day. You might also take some sort of direct action such as consulting a therapist, joining a health club, or reading self-help books.

If you are in the preparation stage, there are some steps you can take to improve your chances of successfully making a lasting life change. Gather as much information as you can about ways to change your behavior. Prepare a list of motivating statements and write down your goals. Find outside resources such as support groups, counselors or friends who can offer advice and encouragement.

Stage 4 - Action

Action Stage.

During the fourth stage of change, people begin taking direct action in order to accomplish their goals. Oftentimes, resolutions fail because the previous steps have not been given enough thought or time.

For example, many people make a New Year's Resolution to lose weight and immediately start a new exercise regimen, begin eating a healthier diet, and cut back on snacks. These definitive steps are vital to success, but these efforts are often abandoned in a matter of weeks because the previous steps have been overlooked.

If you are currently taking action towards achieving a goal, congratulate and reward yourself for any positive steps you take. Reinforcement and support are extremely important in helping maintain positive steps toward change. Take the time to periodically review your motivations, resources, and progress in order to refresh your commitment and belief in your abilities.

Stage 5 - Maintenance

Maintenance Stage.

The maintenance phase of the Stages of Change Model involves successfully avoiding former behaviors and keeping up new behaviors. During this stage, people become more assured that they will be able to continue their change.

If you are trying to maintain a new behavior, look for ways to avoid temptation. Try replacing old habits with more positive actions. Reward yourself when you are able to successfully avoid a relapse. If you do lapse, don’t be too hard on yourself or give up. Instead, remind yourself that it was just a minor setback. As you will learn in the next stage, relapses are common and are a part of the process of making a lifelong change.

Stage 6 - Relapse

Relapse Stage.

In any behavior change, relapses are a common occurrence. When you go through a relapse, you might experience feelings of failure, disappointment, and frustration.

The key to success is to not let these setbacks undermine your self-confidence. If you lapse back to an old behavior, take a hard look at why it happened. What triggered the relapse? What can you do to avoid these triggers in the future?

While relapses can be difficult, the best solution is to start again with the preparation, action, or maintenance stages of behavior change. You might want to reassess your resources and techniques. Reaffirm your motivation, plan of action, and commitment to your goals. Also, make plans for how you will deal with any future temptations.

Resolutions fail when the proper preparation and actions are not taken. By approaching a goal with an understanding of how to best prepare, act and maintain a new behavior, you will be more likely to succeed.

Further Information and Resources

Are you looking for more information about how to make a change and make it stick? The following links will lead you to resources that might help you better understand how behaviors form and how to make them change.

Continue Reading