According to James O. Prochaska, a psychologist who has done extensive research on behavior change, people go through five stages when making changes—and usually cycle through these stages three to four times before a change is firmly established. (The sixth stage, termination, is at the end of the cycles.)
It is important to recognize where you are in the cycle of change so you can set appropriate goals and action steps. Prochaska suggests that each stage requires different strategies or tools.
If you set goals that you are not ready for, you set yourself up for failure. Similarly, if you choose goals that you have already mastered, you will delay your progress. But if you match your goals to your stage of change, you will maximize your ability to change.
The descriptions of each stage listed are taken from Prochaska's book Changing for Good.
"People at this stage usually have no intention of changing their behavior, and typically deny having a problem. Although their families, friends, neighbors, doctors, or co-workers can see the problem quite clearly, the typical precontemplator can't."
Precontemplators resist change. They may change if there is enough constant external pressure, but once the pressure is removed, they quickly revert. Precontemplators are often demoralized and don't want to think about their problem because they feel that the situation is hopeless. "There is certain comfort in recognizing that demoralization is a natural feeling that accompanies this stage-and in realizing that if you take yourself systematically through all the stages of change, you can change."
"I want to stop feeling so stuck. Those simple words are typical of contemplators. In the contemplation stage, people acknowledge that they have a problem and begin to think seriously about solving it. Contemplators struggle to understand their problem, see its causes, and begin to wonder about possible solutions."
However, while people in this stage may have vague plans to make changes, they are often not ready to take action yet. Many people remain in the contemplation stage for years.
Most people in the preparation stage are planning to make changes within the next month. An important first step is to make their intention public. "But although those in the preparation stage are committed to action, and may appear ready, they have not necessarily resolved their ambivalence. They may still need to convince themselves that this is the best step."
This last-minute resolution is necessary. People who cut the preparation stage short lower their chances of success. It is important to develop a firm, detailed scheme for action to carry you through.
"The action stage is the one in which people most overtly modify their behavior and surroundings. They stop smoking, remove all desserts from the house, pour the last beer down the drain, or confront their fears. In short, they make the move for which they have been preparing.
Action is the most obviously busy period, and the one that requires the greatest commitment of time and energy. Changes made during the action stage are more visible to others than those made during other stages."
It is important to realize that, while the action stage is the one that usually receives the most amount of recognition, it is not the only stage during which you can make progress toward overcoming your problem.
In the maintenance stage, you consolidate the gains you made in the action stage and work to prevent relapses.
This stage is a long, ongoing, and critically important process. We all know someone who lost many pounds on a diet, but regained them all in a few months. Successful maintenance requires active alertness.
The termination stage is the ultimate goal. Here, your former addiction or problem will no longer present any temptation or threat. You will not need to make any further effort and will exit the cycle of change.
However, some experts believe that certain problems cannot be terminated but only kept at bay.
Prochaska, J.O., Norcross, J.C., Diclemente, C.C. (1994). Changing for Good. New York: Avon Books.