Most of us think of behavior change as a simple linear process. We set a goal and we move toward it until we achieve success.
Research has shown, however, that behavior change is actually a more complex and circular process. In his study of people who successfully quit smoking, James Prochaska identified six stages which characterize any behavior change. Understanding these six stages of change can help you achieve your goals.
In addition, Prochaska found that few of his subjects actually marched through these steps one after the other. Instead most of them circled through a number of times before they became and remained non-smokers.
This is important for you to know if you are attempting a behavior change or if someone you know is. It’s easy to view a lapse as failure, to become discouraged or even give up.
Instead, you can recognize lapses as a normal part of the behavior change process. Notice a lapse when it happens and use it as an opportunity for learning. Most important, don’t let a lapse become a relapse!
You will be prepared to deal with any setbacks and get quickly back on track once you are aware of the six stages and the patterns typical of the behavior change process.
This information is equally important in helping you to support someone you know who is contemplating or attempting a behavior change.
The Six Stages of Change
Prochaska not only characterized the stages of behavior change. He also identified what you need to accomplish in each stage before you are ready to move to the next. Here are the six stages as well as the benchmarks associated with each.
Precontemplation describes the period before you are aware that a change is necessary. Another word for Precontemplation is denial.
In Precontemplation, you are living with a problem but refusing to acknowledge that change is necessary. Others around you may clearly recognize that you need to change, but you insist that the situation is not so serious that you can’t handle it.
If you have known someone in Precontemplation, you may have experienced the frustration that is common among friends and family. To others the problem is clear. However, until the person in Precontemplation is ready to acknowledge the problem, they will insist that the cause of their difficulties lies elsewhere.
The prerequisite for moving to the next stage is a willingness to acknowledge the possibility that change may be necessary. You need to recognize that the costs of maintaining the problem behavior may be greater than the costs of changing it.
Once you’ve moved out of Precontemplation, you are willing to understand the truth about the problem behavior or situation and consider the alternatives. Contemplation is the learning stage in which you gather information.
In the stage of Contemplation you examine the pros and cons of the various options available to you. You honestly assess all of the costs and benefits of allowing the situation to continue. You also look at the pluses and minuses of doing things differently. You become fully informed.
Some people go back and forth between Precontemplation and Contemplation for a while before they are ready to move ahead. You are ready to move to the next stage when, on the basis of your analysis, you embrace the need for change.
Once you have committed to bringing about a change in your life, the next step is to figure out how to do it. You plan your behavior change.
You identify your goal. You research the various ways you might achieve your goal. You enlist help. Often people show up for life coaching when they reach the Planning stage, knowing that a life coach can help them clarify their goal as well as the steps they need to accomplish it.
Once you have formulated a workable plan, you are ready to move into Action.
You implement your plan in the Action phase. This phase can be seen as an experiment in which you learn which parts of your plan work and where the unforeseen obstacles lie.
Circling between Action and Planning is an inevitable part of the behavior change process. No plan is perfect. It is essential to view any problems which arise as an opportunity to improve your plan.
Once your action plan is proceeding smoothly, you are ready to move into the most challenging stage of all.
Most people enter the Action stage filled with enthusiasm and excitement. There is a sense of euphoria as they begin to see positive change and experience the benefits that this change brings.
It is much more of a challenge to maintain the new behavior. As you move further from the negative experiences created by the old behavior, it becomes easier to minimize their costs. Temptations arise which can be difficult to resist.
Maintenance is the long haul during which new habits are replacing the old ones. Lapses are common during the Maintenance phase. It may be necessary to return to Planning or even to Contemplation to remedy these lapses.
Some people who lapse in the Maintenance stage get so discouraged that they return to Precontemplation. Don’t let this happen to you!
When you understand that behavior change rarely proceeds in a straight line, you can recognize a lapse as a normal part of the change process and get quickly back on track.
6. Termination (Transformation)
Once the new habits have replaced the old, maladaptive behaviors you can consider yourself in what Prochaska labels the Termination phase. I prefer the term Transformation.
In Transformation, you have accomplished the desired change. With the new behaviors established, you are no longer the same person. You can’t imagine going back to the old behavior patterns. You have achieved your goal.
Understanding the six stages of behavior change will help you achieve your goals and make your good life better! If you would like to learn more about the six stages of behavior change, I heartily recommend Prochaska’s book, Changing for Good.