Why is changing our behavior and habits so difficult? Why do we always start with the best intentions to get in shape, quit caffeine, stop smoking or reduce alcohol consumption, but end up indulging in the same old habits that prevent us from changing? It seems like the odds are against us when it comes to change, but instead of being pessimists, why don’t we look to the people who've successfully changed their behavior and try to learn from them?
I'm one of that minority. I’ve made a lot of changes in my life, including completely changing my diet (I’m an ex-junk food addict turned plant-based health nut), and quitting smoking, caffeine and alcohol. On top of that, I’ve lost over 40 pounds and managed to keep it off.
There are plenty of reasons why I was successful, but one of the most important things to consider is how ready you are to make a change and how you'll adjust your life accordingly. I wasn't familiar with the "stages of change" model when I was giving up my bad habits, but after studying it, I can now say I've intuitively used all its principles.
The stages of change model shows that for most people, a change in behavior occurs gradually, with the person moving from being uninterested, unaware or unwilling to make a change (precontemplation), to considering a change (contemplation), to deciding and preparing to make a change. Genuine, determined action is then taken and, over time, attempts to maintain the new behaviour occur. Relapses are almost inevitable and become part of the process of working toward lifelong change.
So here are the stages of change and the steps you can take to overcome them successfully and more smoothly.
1. Precontemplation stage
During this stage, you probably don't even consider changing. You may not believe your behavior is a problem or that it'll negatively affect you. For example, alcoholics who are “in denial” may not see that the advice to quit applies to them personally. Obese people may have tried unsuccessfully so many times to lose weight that they have simply given up.
Goal at this stage: To instill hope and begin thinking about change
What you can do: In order to overcome this stage and move to the next one, you have to accept your problem and become aware of it. For example, you admit you've have a weight problem and aren't immune to the health problems that go along with it. You also admit that this problem won’t solve itself and that in order to overcome it, action needs to be taken. At this stage, you have to face the truth about your current situation.
2. Contemplation stage
During the contemplation stage, you're ambivalent about changing. Giving up an enjoyed behavior — a cup of coffee in the morning, a bar of chocolate in the afternoon — causes you to feel a sense of loss regardless of the perceived gain. You assess barriers (e.g., time, expense, hassle, fear of the unknown, etc.) as well as the benefits of change.
Goal at this stage: Examine benefits and barriers to change, adopt a belief that you can change.
What you can do: The first thing at this stage is weighing pros and cons of changing. You can make a pain and pleasure list. The “pain list” should contain all the things that will happen to you if you do not change, while the “pleasure list” should outline all the benefits that you’re going to get if you change. Then weigh the points in the pain and pleasure lists and decide whether changing is worth the effort.
Another important part of this stage is to adopt a belief that you can do it. Usually people don’t take action because they doubt their ability to change. Search for success stories and find people that have successfully achieved what you’re after. If they could do it, why can’t you?
3. Preparation stage
During this stage, you prepare to make a change. You may experiment with small changes as your determination to change increases. For example, trying a yoga class or opting for a green breakfast smoothie may be experimentation with or a move toward greater lifestyle changes.
Goal at this stage: Experiment with different alternatives, explore new options and become determined to commit
What you can do: Explore different options for how you can start to change. What’s important at this stage is that you're willing. If you're not, any action you take will be temporary and won't bring lasting results.
4. Action stage
This is the stage when you actually commits to taking definitive action toward a desired goal. It’s important to note that if the prior stages have been glossed over, action itself is often not enough.
Goal at this stage: Commit to working toward your goal and take determined action
What you can do: Build a routine and commit to it. Routine is extremely important as it removes the decision process every day. For example, you wake up and you know that you have to drink your lemon water, then make a green juice and hit the gym. Doing the same healthy rituals at the same day each day makes them habits, and once something becomes a habit, it’s automatic and doesn't face resistance.
Stay motivated by reminding yourself why it is important to you. Focus on action rather than results. You can only control what you put in your mouth and how you move your body; you can't control how your body reacts to these changes. Be patient and give yourself enough time.
5. Maintenance/relapse-prevention stage
Maintenance and relapse prevention involve incorporating the new behavior “over the long haul.” It’s important to note most people find themselves “recycling” through the stages of change several times before the change becomes truly established. So if you have a slip up, you shouldn't view it as a fatal failure. I don’t have enough fingers to count all my slip ups. But what kept me going was a bigger picture, my vision of the best version of me.
Goal at this stage: Achieve long term results, bounce back when you have set backs
What you can do: Adopt a belief that setbacks are a normal and necessary part of the process. If you slip up, you didn’t fail; you just had an opportunity to learn a lesson and learn more about yourself. Have a clear vision for the future, bounce back if you fall off the wagon.
Which stage are you at? Identify it and put these tips into practice. If you're ready to start making a lasting change, you can download a free PDF of questions and exercises that will help move you along these stages.