It’s hard to change habits, especially unhealthy ones. Shifting your behavior and integrating healthier habits into your daily life often feels like a one-step-forward, two-steps-back spiral.
So why is it so hard?
We know what to do. Experts tell us we should sleep more, find ways to mitigate our stress, cut out tobacco, reduce or eliminate alcohol, eat healthier foods, and exercise regularly.
And we may know the benefits of changing those lifestyle behaviors, such as reducing our risk for disease and improving our energy and quality of life.
But information doesn’t always equate to action. So we take one step forward, and then if we have trouble making and sustaining our efforts, we get discouraged. Two steps back.
What’s the problem here?
Recognize that Successful Change Happens in Stages
In the 1970s, Carlo DiClemente and James O. Prochaska developed the Transtheoretical Model of Behavior Change, also known as TTM or the “Stages of Change.” The model describes how change occurs gradually as people move through identifiable stages.
Change is a process, not an event.
And at any given time, according to the model, a person is in one of the stages of change: precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, or maintenance. We need different strategies at each stage, and skipping one of the stages can create setbacks.
So let’s take a closer look at each stage outlined by DiClemente and Prochaska.
At this stage you have no conscious intention to make a change. Perhaps you lack awareness that a change is needed or don’t know how to make that change. Or, you may be demoralized by a lack of success in the past. To move past this stage, you must sense that your behavior is at odds with goals that are important to you.
So you’re aware that your behavior is a problem and are considering taking action. But you’re not committed yet. You’re on the fence. Ambivalence marks this stage, and you weigh the benefits and costs of changing. Listing the pros and cons to making a specific lifestyle change could help. And so can considering ways to overcome your barriers.
In the stage of Preparation, you know you must make a change and you believe you can. And you’re making plans to change within the next month or so. In this phase, you’ve taken a few steps – perhaps buying a nicotine patch for a smoking-cessation goal or looking up new recipes for the new way of eating you plan to follow. This is the stage where it’s important to create a realistic action plan with achievable goals. And it’s important to examine any obstacles in your way.
In the Action stage, you’ve made a change in the past six months that according to public health standards removes one or more of the highest risk behaviors. You’re doing it, taking action. And you’ll need to continue to revisit your motivations, focus on your mindset, and practice the strategies you identified earlier. Seek support and accountability throughout this stage.
Ahh, maintenance. After practicing your new change for at least six months, you’re in the maintenance stage. You’re still working to prevent relapse and fully integrate the change into your life. But relapses can happen. And this stage may bring about other changes.
Moving through the stages of change rarely is a linear progression, according to Prochaska and DiClemente. Instead, it’s a spiral, with relapses happening at any point in the process. Then, people recycle through previous stages – possibly even back to precontemplation or contemplation.
However, experts encourage those wishing to adopt healthier behaviors not to let the relapse derail them completely. Consider it part of the process and use it as a learning experience to move forward.
It may not make the process easier, but it might help you create compassion for yourself as you make your way through it.
So what behavior change are you wanting to make? Which stage would you say you’re in? If you need a partner for support, a professionally trained coach can help you work through the stages and create plans and action steps that fit your life and goals.
Amy Hoogervorst, a national board-certified health and wellness coach, helps people create and sustain new habits that can improve their overall health and well-being. Learn more here about working with Amy through coaching. And in addition to writing these articles, she also writes and sends a regular e-newsletter, the Well Check. You can subscribe for free here.