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(Don’t) Just Do It. Understanding the stages of change.

(Don’t) Just Do It. Understanding the stages of change.

A million media ads will have you believe that change is easy. All it takes is the desire to do different. Be different.


But you know this already. Anyone who has ever had the ‘lose weight’ new year’s resolution understands that just getting started is tough, let alone keeping up the motivation and discipline to see your goal through. In fact,  “just doing it” — before you are emotionally ready and properly prepared to tackle a particular goal — may be one of the fastest ways to sabotage your success.

Read this article about setting goals.

This is where understanding American psychologists’ Prochaska and DiClemente’s six-stage model on change comes in: lasting change almost never takes place as the result of a single, ongoing decision to act. More realistically, and scientifically proven, change is progressive cycle which involves thinking, hesitating, stepping forward, stumbling backward, and, quite possibly, starting all over again. I know that the last part is hard to hear, but now that you know that it is indeed part of the process of lasting change you might view your ‘failure’ to succeed the first time as simply part of the process.



“Too often,” says Prochaska, “we’ve presented people with a false choice: Take immediate action, or do nothing. And those are bad choices for most people. If they take action and they aren’t ready, half will fail. And if they don’t take action, they’ll continue with their unhealthy behaviour.” The better choice? Start where you are, take the steps forward that are appropriate for you now, and then just keep on going.

According to Prochaska’s Transtheoretical Model (TTM) lasting change usually proceeds through six key stages: from Precontemplation, to Contemplation, then to Preparation and Action. But it’s not always that simple as we can easily coast right back into preparation or contemplation if we lose our nerve, focus or steam. For our behaviour change to prove sustainable, it must enter a Maintenance phase (generally, six months or more of consistent action) until it finally becomes ingrained as a stable habit. This final, ongoing phase is known as Termination, which implies that the change is now a permanent part of our lifestyle.

Not all experts see TTM as a perfect tool. But understanding your readiness to change may very well be a step in the right direction.

Stage 1: Pre-contemplation

Does this ring true for you? Everyone has told you that you need to make this change, but it seems like too much work. When someone tries to talk you about this, you change the subject or simply stop listening.

People in this stage may wish to change, but for the immediate future have no plans to do so. Why? They may not be fully aware of all the potential benefits, or they may feel disinclined to try because of past failed attempts, or a lack of available energy.

Weighing the pros and cons of a behaviour is an important component in the Transtheoretical Model. In the beginning, the apparent cons tend to outweigh the perceived pros. As a person moves through the six stages, however, that balance shifts.

Moving from Pre-contemplation to Contemplation: It may take a scary test result or a major life event (such as the birth of a child or death of a loved one) to get you motivated to start thinking differently about your prospects for change. Meanwhile, recognise that “just thinking about it” has potential value, too, and can help open your mind to new possibilities.


Stage 2: Contemplation

Do your ears perk up when you hear someone talk about the change you are thinking of making? If so, you are likely on the second phase of making a lasting change. You are gaining the confidence needed to change your behaviour.

Those in the Contemplation stage are thinking about taking action, but aren’t quite ready or don’t know how to get started. They are still on the fence. Contemplators often think they might make the behaviour change within the next six months, and they’re open to information and feedback. In this stage, the pros and cons of potential change feel about equal.

“At this stage, identifying and amplifying a person’s internal motivators for behavior change — the things uniquely important to them as an individual — is very important to tipping the scales,” notes master certified life coach Kate Larsen, in Progress Not Perfection: Your Journey Matters (Expert Publisher, 2007).

In this stage it could be helpful to visualise what your life will be like after the change.

Moving from Contemplation to Preparation: This is a great time to do the low-commitment work of envisioning your better self and your better life — perhaps journaling or making a “vision board” that represents the change you’d like to accomplish. It’s also a good time to recognise that if you have been thinking about change for a while and not doing it, there’s probably a reason: You may lack some of the necessary skills, knowledge or confidence. You may be concerned about the prospect of leaving behind familiar patterns. If so, reaching out for the support of a coach, mentor or counsellor could be very helpful. Hearing the first-person accounts of others who have already made this change can be inspiring and reassuring, too.


Stage 3: Preparation

People in the Preparation stage are getting ready to take action. They are more decisive, confident and committed; they’re developing a plan and may have already taken small steps. At this point, the pros of making the change clearly outweigh the cons — but there’s some work to be done before meaningful action can take place.

The Preparation stage is all about building confidence — and troubleshooting against the obstacles or weaknesses that stand the greatest chance of undermining it. This is the time to develop an “if-then” plan for the various challenges and temptations you are likely to face when you make the change, says Lickerman. It is much harder to think of success strategies and temptation-management techniques on the fly than it is to prepare for them in advance.

People tend to get stuck in Preparation (or ricochet back and forth between it and Contemplation) when they misjudge their level of readiness or impatiently jump straight to Action. That can undermine their confidence and make them wary about trying again.

At this stage, Lickerman says, “I encourage people to pick a specific day on which they’ll officially begin their planned change. I ask them to make key adjustments to their environment and schedule, and rally the support of friends and family.”

This is also a great time to hire a coach, if you choose to, or to join a support group that focuses on your desired change. And now is when you want to make any other necessary arrangements: If your goal is to start a fitness plan, for example, mark your calendar with a firm date and time when you plan to begin working out, sign up for a fitness class, arrange childcare, and buy the proper shoes and workout clothes for your chosen activity.


You’re in the Preparation stage if: You’re actively gathering information, support, maybe even gear and supplies — and feel nearly ready to take your first steps. You’re feeling motivated to learn the skills that will help you be successful in making this change. You’re inclined to accept appropriate support, and you welcome invitations and incentives to participate in activities that will move you forward.

Moving from Preparation to Action: This is when you sign up for that class, attend a support group, buy a health-club or yoga-studio membership, or bring home a pamphlet for services that will help you make the change you desire. If you’re determined to eat healthier, this might be when you start clearing the junk food out of your pantry and stocking up on wholesome stuff. Any initial steps — even if they are experimental — move you that much closer to Action and the sense of momentum that comes with it. Ask yourself: What, if anything, do I need to do to embrace this change in my life and be prepared for the obstacles I’m most likely to encounter?

Stage 4: Action

Now you are no longer thinking and preparing for change. You are doing the things you have set out to do and gaining confidence doing so.

This stage is where all those small steps, small choices, and mini sacrifices make a huge difference.

In this phase external support is crucial. Even if you might not feel comfortable asking for help, you are more likely to succeed if you take people up on offers to assist you. Emotional and physical support, as well has having someone to be accountable to will help you in the long run. It’s not easy breaking old habits and steering clear of triggers that take you off course will be a challenge. Do you need a reward for keeping to your changed behaviour? Do you need a visual reminder on your desk to keep you focused on your goal?

Look for ways to acknowledge your ongoing efforts, to address new obstacles as they emerge, and to reward yourself for even small successes.

Action is an ongoing process, so the focus here needs to be on progress, not perfection. Let that sink in.

Moving from Action to Maintenance: Prochaska’s model specifies that after six months of consistent action, you transition into Maintenance. Getting to that point mostly involves doing whatever keeps you strong, motivated and focused. Finding ways to integrate your chosen behaviour change into your social life and sense of identity can be a big help.


Stage 5: Maintenance

You’re in the Maintenance stage if for at least the past six months, you’ve been diligent and consistent in performing the actions you committed to as part of your desired behaviour to change. They now seem fairly routine.

You’ve successfully avoided or overcome the obstacles that could have caused them to slip back into old behaviours.

Beware of these triggers into relapse

  • stress
  • crisis
  • apathy
  • boredom
  • a loss of environmental or emotional support
  • a frustrating plateau in progress
  • major life events — like a job change, romantic breakup, location change, birth or death in the family — can also trigger a relapse.

Whenever you fall out of Action for long enough that there’s a question about whether or not you’ll be back on track tomorrow, you’re probably stepping out of Maintenance and back into Action, Preparation, or even Contemplation. The thing to keep in mind, says Prochaska, is that “the only real mistake you can make in changing is to give up on your ability to change.”

Moving from Maintenance to Termination: Stay on the maintenance path for two years or more, rallying even through stresses and setbacks, and you’ll reach a point where you can’t really imagine ever going back to the way things were before.


Stage 6: Termination

After two years or more in Maintenance, you’ve been at this long enough that it now doesn’t seem like “behaviour change” at all. It’s just the way you live — an integrated, almost effortless part of who you are. You’ve likely become adept enough at the required skills and awarenesses that you’ve learned how to apply them in new ways, perhaps to new goals in other parts of your life. You’re confident enough now in this realm that you may even coach or mentor others in making the changes you’ve mastered.

Until you enter Termination, hitting a wall or falling back into an earlier stage is very common. So don’t be too hard on yourself. As long as you can identify the stage you are at within TTM, you will always know what you need to do to get back on track, recommit to your goal and make forward progress. And you’ll have a clear sense of where you’re headed next.

What changes are you thinking of making this year in order to complete your postgraduate studies and / or thesis? Which stage do you identify yourself in?

Let’s talk about it.