Stages of change theory research and review

“Small steps taken consistently over a long period of time produce results”

Scientific Research
The motivation to change has been at the center of hundreds of theories in the field of psychology.  Researchers for the National Institute of Health set out to study the process of change by looking at the behaviors of people who changed some specific behavior without any specific type of intervention.  These “self-changers” were not always successful in maintaining the changed behavior as there is still a need for guidance and support, but they seemed to tap into the inner strength and confidence necessary to develop the motivation for change.  In studying these self-changers, the researchers were able to discover a natural process that has helped take some of the mystery out of the change process. 

Here is what the research has taught us.  Change takes place in predictable stages.   There are six stages one must go through in order to make lasting change.  Knowing which stage you are in regarding the issue you are working on can help you accept the amount of time it takes, which can help motivate you to keep going and can also help you choose which process of intervention is best for you at the time.  ( Article on The Six Progressive Stages of Change)


All stages are necessary, however, this is not a linear progression.  The self-changers had to renew their efforts several times by developing more effective relapse plans.  Each time we recycle through the process, there is a new awareness of what might have been done differently. People who take action and fail are more likely to succeed than those who don’t take any action at all. Courage is not just starting, but trying again another day.

Here’s a recap of the research and the six stages of change:

1 - Pre-contemplation – In denial of the problem - resisting change and feeling hopeless that can ever change.   We are all unaware of the strategies we use that cause problems in our lives. They are just strategies and behaviors put in place early on to help us cope with the problems of life.   Because avoiding pain is more motivational than seeking pleasure; often it takes the painful consequences of our self-defeating behaviors to help us come out of denial.  Desiring to change some behaviors that create undesirable consequences becomes the motivational force.  

a - Noticing the weaknesses we see in others as a clue to what we hesitate to see in ourselves.
b - Letting other people show us our weak spots without our getting defensive.
c - Noticing how the structures in place within our society support the problem.   Ex: TV watching = less exercise.

2 - Contemplation – Change is on the horizon. We recognize that we have a problem, but are stuck and wonder about possible solutions. Thinking....I tried to do it before and it didn’t work, maybe I should find a different way this time. I do not really know what or when, but maybe I should start thinking about this.

a - Gathering information about the issue, reading books and articles, listening to others.
b - Considering various options, dealing with our fear of failure.
c - Feeling the pain of not changing.  (It is common to get stuck in this stage)

3 - Preparation – Getting ready and planning to take action at some definite point in the future. There are some practical things we are going to have to do to prepare.   Looking at the consequences of giving up a habit or behavior and deciding to develop alternatives. This transition in thinking becomes the foundation for action. (This key stage is often missed)  

a - Writing out a plan.
b - Making a personal commitment.
c - Perhaps sharing it with someone.
4 - Action –Time to move.  This is the busiest time of the six stages when the behavior and surroundings are in the process of modification.  Going too fast sets us up for failure.  Every time we commit to a new behavior and fail, a negative message is internalized which undermines our self-confidence and thus, our motivation to continue.  (Most programs start out with this stage, which invites failure and discouragement)

a - Start with small steps, what you know you can do.
b - Keep crunching it down until you can stay with it.
c - Stay focused for 21 days until the new habit is formed.

5 - Maintenance – Staying there.  Accountability is in place for six months minimum; and in some cases having to do with certain addictions, accountability may be necessary for life.  (We may start and fail several times with a certain behavior before finding effective ways to maintain the new behavior until it becomes a way of life.)

a - Develop a circle of support for your new behavior that is rewarding as in new friends, a support group, a coach.
b - Add a new activity or something as a reward for your success.
c - Keep a journal in order to keep awareness alive.

6 - Termination – Exiting out of the cycle of change.   The problem is now completely solved.  The old behavior is no longer a temptation or a struggle.  The new behavior is in place and is automatic.  Now is the time to add a new step to your overall goal. (Success leads to greater success).

a - Create a vision in advance of what termination of your overall goal would look like.
b - Read it out- loud to yourself every day to help keep you focused throughout the process.
c – Add a new step and start the process all over again

Change is a Step-by-Step Process

Established patterns of behavior do not change easily.  When we come to believe that the majority of our behaviors are rooted in our unconscious mind and that we are mostly operating from early childhood programming, our resistance to change becomes more understandable.  One thing we know about change; it follows a basic law of nature:  there can never be a void.  It unnatural to step into the unknown.  Therefore, if we are going to give up a certain habit or behavior, we will have to have something else to take its place.  Lasting change is a process of replacing one behavior for another, gradually and consistently over a long period of time.  

(You can read more about this study in the book:  Changing For Good,  by James Prochaska,PH.D, John Norcross, PH.D, Carlo Diclemente,PH.D)