Many years ago, researchers looked into how to understand why some people engaged in behavior change when others didn’t. These researchers, Prochaska and DiClemente, found that not everyone who needed to change, or even wanted to change, were in the same starting place.
The thing about change is you can only start where you are. Through their work and research Prochaska and DiClemente established the Transtheoretical Model (or Stages of Change) of change. This model describe how people go through various stages as they move through change—and most importantly that at any given time only about 20% are in place of action around change—which flies in the face of a lot of what we believe and understand about change. This small bit of information should help all of us stop lecturing people about change: stop lecturing our clients or patients, stop lecturing our family members and loved ones, and even stop lecturing ourselves. What we all need is a good dose of curiosity…”I wonder what would happen if?”
The stages of change are Pre-Contemplation, Contemplation, Preparation, Action and Maintenance. Each of these stages of change has its own needs and is best served by different supports. This is often why some people do really well with one sort of program or book or support and others don’t. It’s often not a matter of motivation or willpower—it’s a matter of the resources matching the stage of change.
Pre-Contemplation is the stage where you actually aren’t interested in changing something. Often others around you are more interested than you are. In this stage the best support is information you can take in on your own terms: books, videos, stories. Action oriented programs often backfire, and the frustration of not being ready can prolong your own resistance. This is a good time to just take in information and begin to imagine the possibility of change. Or even just to reconnect with goals that are important to you, which might be served by such change.
In the Contemplation stage you have moved to thinking about changing in the next six months. You have gotten enough information to know about the pros of changing, but you are also very aware of the cons. This is still a time of gathering information, but also a time to explore your values, your passions, your motivations. It’s a time to question what will be gained if you change, and what will be lost. And perhaps most importantly—what is the cost of doing nothing? This is important time to gather energy and motivation for the long process of change. People do get stuck here, but it is also important to take the time you need to.
In the preparation stage, you intend to change in the next month. Often you are moving towards action. You are finding the right resources: a course, a gym, a nutritionist, a therapist. Perhaps you have experimented with change and pulled back. In the preparation stage you would be well served to gather as much information as you can, not about the impact of change as you did earlier, but about what supports the process. Talk to others who have tried—what worked and didn’t work for them. Think about what might support your work as you begin to change—do you have what you need? In this stage you don’t have the work or stress of change, so you have more energy and resources to do some of the prep and building work.
This is the stage that everyone recognizes as change: in this stage you are making the change: you are going to the gym, you are changing your diet, your are in the process of quitting smoking. In this model you are in the Action stage until the new health behavior is habit (or until the old behavior is gone, ie. you no longer smoke at all). In this phase it is important to value your strength and courage to continue in your efforts and to experience confidence in your continued work—to get the sense that “I am a person who can make changes like this.”
Depending upon the behavior change—Maintenance can last from six months to five years—and maybe even longer for some. In this stage you are attending to the new habits and working to keep them solid. You are likely even working on other goals and other things that you want to change. And to support the maintenance stage you are consistently working on increasing other behaviors and habits that support you so that there is less likelihood that you need the old behavior that you worked so hard to change. If you used to smoke to relieve stress, you are consistenly working on stress management strategies so you have a wide range of options that doesn’t include smoking.
So, take amoment to think about that New Year’s Resolution again in the light of stages of change. Where are you? What can you do to support yourself in the stage that you are in so that when it is time for the action stage you have you feet solidly beneath you to spring from? You can read more about Transtheoretical Model here, they have lots of descriptions and an entire section on their research. And below you can get the link to their book.