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How the Stages of Change Model Helps to Change Your Habits

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How the Stages of Change Model Helps to Change Your Habits

There’s no doubt that change can be difficult. Old habits are hard to shift, and adopting a new lifestyle can feel like an uphill battle. However, understanding the Stages of Change Model can help you implement lasting change in your life.

The Stages of Change Model explains the science behind personal transformation. You’ll discover how and why some changes stick, while others don’t last, and how long it takes to build new habits.

What Is the Stages of Change Model?

Developed by researchers J.O. Prochaska and Carlo C. DiClemente over 30 years ago[1] and outlined in their book Changing For Good, the Stages of Change Model, also known as the Transtheoretical Model, was formed as a result of the authors’ research with smokers.

Prochaska and DiClemente were originally interested in the question of why some smokers were able to quit on their own, whereas others required professional help. Their key conclusion was that smokers (or anyone else with a bad habit) quits only when they are ready to do so.

Here’s an illustration done by cartoonist and illustrator Simon Kneebone[2] about the different stages a smoker experiences when they try to quit smoking:

Stages of change model for smokers

    The Stages of Change Model looks at how these conscious decisions are made. It emphasizes that people can spend a long time stuck in a stage, and some may never reach their goals.[3]

    The model has been applied in the treatment of smoking, alcoholism, and drugs. It is also a useful way of thinking about any bad habit. Social workers, therapists, and psychologists draw on the model to understand their patients’ behaviors, and to explain the change process to the patients themselves.

    The key advantages to the model is that it is simple to understand, is backed by extensive research, and can be applied in many situations.

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    The Stages of Change Model is a well-established psychological model that outlines six stages of personal change:

    1. Precontemplation
    2. Contemplation
    3. Determination
    4. Action
    5. Maintenance
    6. Termination

    How Are These Stages Relevant to Changing Habits?

    To help you visualize the stages of change and how each progresses to the next one, please take a look at this wheel:[4]

    Stages of change wheel

      Let’s look at the six stages of change, together with an example that will show you how the model works in practice.

      Stage 1: Precontemplation

      In the precontemplation stage

      , an individual does not plan to make any positive changes in the next six months. This may be because they are in denial about their problem, feel too overwhelmed to deal with it, or are too discouraged after multiple failed attempts to change.

      For example, someone may be aware that they need to start exercising but cannot find the motivation to do so. They might keep thinking about the last time they tried (and failed) to work out regularly. Only when they start to realize the advantages of making a change will they progress to the next stage.

      Stage 2: Contemplation

      In the contemplation stage, the individual starts to consider the pros and cons of changing. They start to acknowledge that altering their habits would probably benefit them, but they spend a lot of time thinking about the downside of doing so. This stage can last for a long time—possibly a year or more.

      You can think of this as the procrastinating stage. For example, an individual begins to seriously consider the benefits of regular exercise, but feels resistant when they think about the time and effort involved. When the person starts putting together a concrete plan for change, they move to the next stage.

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      The key to moving from this stage to the next is the transformation of an abstract idea to a belief (e.g. from “Exercise is a good, sensible thing to do” to “I personally value exercise and need to do it.”)[5].

      Stage 3: Preparation

      People in this stage start to put a plan in place to move away from the status quo

      . This stage is brief, lasting a few weeks. For example, they may book a session with a personal trainer and enroll in a nutrition course.

      Someone who drinks to excess may make an appointment with a drug and alcohol counsellor; someone with a tendency to overwork themselves might start planning ways to devise a more realistic schedule.

      Stage 4: Action

      At this point in the Stages of Change Model, the individual must put their step-by-step plan into action. This stage typically lasts for several months and involves many small steps. In our example, the person would begin attending the gym regularly and overhauling their diet.

      Stage 4 is the stage at which the person’s desire for change becomes noticeable to family and friends. However, in truth, the change process began a long time ago. If someone you know seems to have suddenly changed their habits, it’s probably not so sudden after all!

      You can learn how to take action on your goals in this article.

      Stage 5: Maintenance

      After a few months in the action stage, the individual will start to think about how they can maintain their changes in the long term, and make lifestyle adjustments accordingly. For instance, someone who has adopted the habit of regular workouts and a better diet will be vigilant against old triggers (such as eating junk food during a stressful time at work) and make a conscious decision to protect their new habits.

      Unless someone actively engages with Stage 5, their new habits are liable to come unstuck. Someone who has stuck to their new habits for many months—perhaps a year or longer—may enter the final stage.

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      Maintenance can be challenging because it entails coming up with a new set of habits to lock change in place. For instance, someone who is maintaining their new gym-going habit may have to start improving their budgeting skills in order to continue to afford their gym membership.

      Stage 6: Termination

      Not many people reach this stage, which is characterized by a complete commitment to the new habit and a certainty that they will never go back to their old ways. For example, someone may find it hard to imagine giving up their gym routine and feel ill at the thought of eating junk food on a regular basis.

      However, for the majority of people, it’s normal to stay in the maintenance period indefinitely. This is because it takes a long time for a new habit to become so automatic and natural that it sticks forever, with little effort.

      To use another example, an ex-smoker will often find it hard to resist the temptation to have “just one” cigarette, even a year or more after quitting. It can take years for them to truly reach the termination stage, at which point they are no more likely to smoke than a lifelong non-smoker.

      How Long Does Each Stage Take?

      You should be aware that some people remain in the same stage for months or even years at a time. Understanding this model will help you be more patient with yourself when making a change. If you try to force yourself to jump from contemplation to maintenance, you’ll just end up frustrated. On the other hand, if you take a moment to assess where you are in the change process, you can adapt your approach.

      If you need to make changes quickly, and you are finding it hard to progress to the next stage, it’s probably time to get some professional help or adopt a new approach to forming habits.

      Limitations of the Stages of Change Model

      The model is best applied when you decide in advance precisely what you want to achieve and know exactly how you will measure it (e.g. number of times per week you go to the gym, or number of cigarettes smoked per day). Although the model has proven useful for many people, it does have limitations.

      Require the Ability to Set a Realistic Goal

      For a start, there are no surefire ways of assessing where you are in the process—you just have to be honest with yourself and use your own judgement. Second, it assumes that you are physically capable of making a change, whereas in fact you might either need to adjust your goals or seek professional help.

      If your goal isn’t realistic, it doesn’t matter whether you follow the stages—you still won’t get results. You need to decide for yourself whether your aims are reasonable.[6]

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      Difficult to Judge Your Progress

      The model also assumes that you are able to objectively measure your own successes and failures, which may not always be the case.[7]

      For instance, let’s suppose that you are trying to get into the habit of counting calories as part of your weight-loss efforts. However, even though you may think that you are recording your intake properly, you might be over or under-estimating.

      Research shows that most people think they are getting enough exercise and eating well, but really aren’t as healthy as they believe. The model doesn’t take this possibility into account, meaning that you could believe yourself to be in the action stage yet aren’t seeing results.

      Therefore, if you are serious about making changes, it may be best to get some expert advice so that you can be sure the changes you are making really will make a positive difference.


      The Stages of Change Model can be a wonderful way to understand change in both yourself and others.

      While there are some limitations in it, the Stages of Change Model helps to visualize how you go through changes so you know what to expect when you’re trying to change a habit.

      More Tips on Changing Habits

      Featured photo credit: Ian Parker via unsplash.com


      [1] Psych Central: Stages Of Change
      [2] Simon Kneebone: Tobacco and Mental Illness Project
      [3] Boston University School Of Public Health: The Transtheoretical Model (Stages Of Change)
      [4] Empowering Change: Stages of Change
      [5] Psychology Today: 5 Steps To Changing Any Behavior
      [6] The Transtheoretical Model: Limitations Of The Transtheoretical Model
      [7] Health Education Research: Transtheoretical Model & Stages Of Change: A Critique

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