In Search of How People Change: The Process

In Search of How People Change: The Process


“The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking” - Albert Einstein


Change is something that is all around us. It’s often said that change is the only constant in life. However, as humans, we often find ourselves resisting life changes, possibly because of the perceived risk associated with it.

The majority of us have something on our list of behaviors that we would like to start or stop. You may want to become more involved in the community, eat healthier, exercise on a regular basis, or quit drinking. So why is it that we have such a hard time initiating or following through with our desires?

James Prochaska – a renowned psychologist – believed that we tend to view change incorrectly, seeing it as an event instead of viewing it as a process. Prochaska created the Transtheoretical Model of Behavior Change, which identifies the various stages that individuals move in and out of when trying to form new behaviors or adopt new habits. Progression through the stages does not necessarily happen in a linear fashion; people will often recycle through the stages or regress to earlier stages from later ones.

Gaining a further understanding of the stages of change, and determining which one you are in, can help you choose goals that will lead you towards behavioral and life changes. As you read through the five stages of change, consider what stage you may be in and what actions you might take in order to progress.


The Five Stages of Change

Pre-Contemplation stage

When you are in the pre-contemplation stage, you lack an awareness of the problem at hand. Although you may see how you could make things better in your life, you have no conscious intentions of making any changes and do not deem it necessary. This lack of action may occur because you feel like you don’t have enough information to make a decision or your past failures have created a feeling of hopelessness.

During the pre-contemplation stage, you may have the desire to change; however, wanting change is much different than intending to change. Sometimes the wish to change plays into a desire to please others who are aware of your problem. In order to progress through this stage, you must recognize that the behavior you wish to change conflicts with your personal goals or values. 


You enter into the contemplation stage when you acknowledge that you have a problem and seriously debate whether or not you want to commit to changing it. You may know that you have a problem but find yourself stuck in the contemplation stage for long periods of time because you are not ready for change. You may be spending time continually measuring and re-measuring the costs and benefits of change. The contemplation stage can be the most difficult and frustrating phase of the five stages of change.

When working through the contemplation stage, you require all of the support, education, and encouragement that you can receive. When helping people who are going through this stage, it’s important to meet them where they are in their process instead of trying to pressure them through it. Creating a list of pros and cons of making the change and examining ways to overcome potential obstacles can help you through the contemplation stage. 

Preparation Stage

You reach the preparation stage when you possess the intention to change and actually take some action towards it in the immediate future, typically within one month. Although you may have success immediately and completely terminating your problem behaviors, it is common to work through the preparation stage by taking baby steps towards your end goal.

When progressing through this stage, it is important to take notice of small successes, such as smoking three cigarettes a day instead of five. Encouragement and pride in your accomplishments will promote further success. Thus, you may benefit from reaching out to friends, family, or professionals for support. Typically, this stage involves making a plan of action, such as joining a gym, talking to a physician, or meeting with a counselor.

Action Stage

You progress to the action stage of change when you have made significant behavioral changes within the past one to six months. At this point, you have modified your environment, relationships, and routines in order to promote change. For example, a person dealing with alcohol addiction no longer frequents places where they used to drink, spends time with people who encourage drinking, or keeps alcohol in the house. The action stage requires the most commitment and calls for a large devotion of time.

If you have a strong support group, you may be receiving praise and encouragement as your behavioral changes become more easily noticed. On the other hand, you may experience negative feedback from those who once encouraged your former bad habits. Therefore, it is essential to build an encouraging and positive support system around you.

Maintenance Stage

Once you have integrated the new behavior into your life for six months, you have entered into the maintenance stage. The maintenance stage is of the utmost importance! It provides you with the tools that you need to maintain behavior change and to avoid relapsing to old habits.

In the action stage, you must take steps in order to promote change; in this stage, you are taking steps to maintain your change. During the maintenance stage, you can benefit from making plans for situations in which you will be tempted to steer off track. For example, you can make specific schedules to avoid procrastination. The maintenance stage is viewed as a continuum: you may have to work to maintain behavior changes throughout your whole life. 


Change your Life & Habits

When it comes to behavior and life changes, relapse is an integral part of the process. Rather than looking at each misstep as a failure, allow yourself room for relapse. Learn something from it. Remember, change is not a linear process and there will be times when you find yourself shifting back and forth between the stages of change. Each mistake that you make on this journey of change can be an opportunity to discover something about yourself. Analyze why strategies or techniques may not have worked for you. If you experience setbacks, reassess your plan and continue on the pathway to change!

“I can’t change the direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sails to always reach my destination” - Jimmy Dean.


Author: Stephanie Ballard, CADC


Prochaska, J., DiClemente, C., & Norcross, J. (1994). In search of how people change. American Psychologist, Vol. 47, No. 9, 1102-1114

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