The 5 Stages To Lasting & Meaningful Change
I love listening to podcasts on my commute to keep me from going crazy and to get me motivated at the same time. Recently, I heard a great quote from Marie Forleo who said: “Insight without action is worthless”. That is a fantastic quote. It is truly what this website is all about. I am all about insight and all about action, but they have to go together creating change; by themselves, they are just a waste of good energy. Honest check-in! How many times have you had the AHA moment, you’ve had the insight, the bulb just lit up and you said you are going to change something about yourself, and you only made it for a couple of months, a few weeks, several days, or not even 24 hours? It could have been your new vegetarian diet, not cussing at work, not nagging your spouse, your new yoga workout, or not yelling at your kids. The list goes on and on. We’ve all been there. But sustainable change is hard. Anyone can change something for a few days, but long-term change is difficult. It takes a lot of motivation, planning, and lots and lots of practice. Why is that? Well, depending on how old you are and how long you’ve been practicing a particular habit such as eating fast food, being a couch potato, or communicating in a sarcastic way, your brain has formed these strong neural pathways, just like tracks in the snow. Change means having to form new pathways in the snow; you have to keep walking in the new pathway over and over to deepen it, while the old paths get covered up and forgotten. But being a trailblazer is hard, that’s why we often revert to the old ways of doing things. It literally takes way less brain power and less physical energy to do something that’s so ingrained in your brain that’s almost a reflex. Today, I want to introduce you to the science of change. No matter what you decide to change in your life, this will be the roadmap that will get you there. Pioneered by psychologist James Prochaska, the stages of readiness for change are a series of steps that require specific interventions to move you successfully to the next step. At the end of this post, you can download a free worksheet that you can use to effectively plan your change.
Stage 1. Precontemplation AKA “I don’t have a problem, I don’t need to change.”
This is usually when someone else such as your spouse, your doctor, your employer usually brings up the problem. We will call them your external motivators. You generally don’t see the problem and you may not be even interested in hearing about making a change. You may be uninformed, under-informed, or unaware of the true consequences of your behavior. Internal motivation is very low, so generally, you’ll hear some nagging, threats, and some frustration from people around you. The best way to handle someone in this phase is with very subtle education and exposure to alternatives to current choices. Sorry to break the bad news, but generally for people in this stage, there is no attempt to change in the next 6 months unless the external motivators can have a strong effect on them. For example, the doctor saying “You will have a heart attack if you don’t change your diet.”
Stage 2. Contemplation AKA “I can see how I may have a problem and I may benefit from making a change, but I am not quite sure what I need to do or if I feel like doing it.”
At this point, you are starting to get some insight into the problem and you are weighing the pros and cons of a possible change. Ambivalence is huge at this time, lots of going back and forth, lots of talk, but not too much action. This weighing between the costs and benefits of changing can produce profound ambivalence that can cause people to remain at this stage for long periods of time. This phenomenon is often characterized as chronic contemplation or behavioral procrastination. Additional education, alternatives, and motivational materials are good interventions at this point. I like using motivational YouTube videos and blogs to get one going. For example, for someone looking to change their diet, Dr. Axe and Kris Carr of “Crazy Sexy Cancer” have some great blog posts and recipes. One more thing to keep in mind at this stage is that the longer you wait to take action on something you should do now, the greater the odds that you will never actually do it! So, sometimes, it’s just good to stop thinking about it and just do it.
Stage 3. Planning AKA “I am ready to change and I need to start working on it.”
This is the stage that requires a lot of attention, but unfortunately, it’s often missed and under-looked even in therapy. It’s an exhilarating phase because you are highly motivated, you are positive and ready to change. But most make the mistake to think that, just because they are mentally there, just wishing the change, thinking about the change, should just make the change happen. And sometimes, it does, for a period of time, until you get tired, bored, stressed out, angry, pissed off, overwhelmed, and give up….because you never did the proper planning and did not anticipate the resistance, the objections, and the traps that life throws at you and you didn’t have a plan for how to overcome them without reverting back to old habits. Relapse happens often here without the proper planning. When you download my worksheet below, you will see that my focus is on the Planning Stage. This is where the bulk of your effort should go into. How well we prepare at this stage truly dictates the level of success.
Stage 4. Action AKA Practice, practice, practice!
Yay! You are making overt modifications to your lifestyle. This is when the heavy lifting is happening, and you are seeing the results, which in turn, they become reinforcers for the new paths and new choices. Relapse may happen but it’s of short duration, and most come back with better planning, better tools, and the change deepens. Internal motivation is getting stronger and stronger. You are doing this for yourself, not for other people. And even though you may have moments when you don’t feel like pursuing the change, remember that you are more likely to act yourself into feeling than feel yourself into action. This pretty much means that the positive rewards of having acted on healthy change will change your feelings about it. Thus, motivation is a by-product, it happens after you are engaged in the action.
Stage 5. Maintenance AKA “This is my life now, I can’t see myself going back”
Congratulations, you’ve made it! This change turned into a lifestyle. The new pathways are formed and are being solidified. You can become a teacher or an instructor at this point because you are passionate not only about sustaining this change in your life but also about inspiring others and supporting them in their efforts. And now the worksheets I’ve been promising you all along. Check out the HELP ME CHANGE STARTER KIT in our Anxiety & Stress Management Center to help you plan your very own stages of change. It includes my personal example of how I changed my diet during my three pregnancies due to gestational diabetes. And of course, it includes your very own blank template to create your custom action steps. As a therapist, I am very passionate about creating solutions that would make your life easier, more satisfied, and more enjoyable. I am committed to writing posts and giving you the most pertinent and effective psychoeducation that you would get in a therapy session. Of course, these posts are not a substitute for good old-fashioned one-on-one time, but they will definitely get you started and give you something to think about. If you appreciate this post, I would be so excited to have you share it with your friends. And if you feel like you could use some more individual and customized guidance, reach out for your 15-minute free consultation. ABOUT: Dr. Ruxandra LeMay is a private practice psychologist in Litchfield Park, Arizona with experience in family therapy, ADHD, stress and anxiety management, and executive coaching. She is the author of My Spouse Wants More Sex Than Me: The 2-Minute Solution For a Happier Marriage. Click HERE to check out her free resources on effective communication, emotional unavailability, and intimacy or join her at www.ruxandralemay.comfor blogs posts and additional programs.