The 5 stages of change and how we screw them up started in 1977 when researchers Prochaska and DiClemente (1) of the University of Rhode Island…
Did Breaking Bad teach you nothing? Stay with me here, science can be fun I swear.
Let me start over. Researchers, Prochaska and DiClemente developed the 5 stages of change model or Transtheoretical model after 35 years of research and studies as a way of conceptualizing the process of behavior change. Simply put the model describes the process most of us take when we decide it’s time to pull the ol’switch-er-roo on life.
This is my interpretation of the 5 stages of change. One of the stages is called the Unicorn stage. So if you believe in Unicorns – read on.
Table of Contents
STAGES OF CHANGE #1 – PRE CONTEMPLATION. ALSO KNOWN AS NOT REALLY READY
Stage 1 can best be summed up by not seriously considering change yet. Maybe you walked by the mirror one day and thought to yourself, “hmmm, I look like I’ve put on some weight,” But it was nothing more than a passing thought. Or maybe you’re driving home listening to your favorite podcast and you say out loud, “damn, I hate this shit. My job sucks and this traffic blows.” But again, it’s just something you say and you don’t really consider putting in your 2-weeks or giving your boss the finger just yet.
Maybe it’s not even something you think or say to yourself. A friend, family member, significant other, your kids, a co-worker, or a pair of tight pants might get you to quickly consciously, or subconsciously create a brief thought in your mind about making some changes. But it’s nothing more than something in passing. You don’t really consider it in-depth. Overall your content and secure with where you’re at and there’s no real reason to make any waves in your life.
STAGES OF CHANGE #2 – CONTEMPLATION. ALSO KNOWN AS THINGS THAT MAKE YOU GO HMMMMMM
Stage 2 is defined by thinking more in-depth about the possibility of making a change in your life and may or may not be related to a spark from stage 1. Stage 2 is often triggered by something emotional like a doctor’s visit where you told your health is deteriorating and if you want to live to see your kids grow-up you better makes some changes.
Maybe your husband or wife cheated on you, another late night at work caused you to miss your kid’s baseball game or first steps, or you’ve just entered a place in your life where you’re so lost that you know something needs to change – even if you’re not sure what. You may even be afraid that if you don’t change something now then you’ll be stuck in this situation forever.
However, this stage often results in what I’m going to dub as “The Pug Tilt.” This is when you’re head endlessly moves from left to right as you weigh the pros and cons of taking the necessary steps to create change in your life.
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Unfortunately, you can get trapped in this stage forever. Someone trying to lose weight may research and research and research some more about the best diet and workouts but then never doing anything about it. Someone working on personal development may be reading all the right books and taking all the best courses but all they’re really working on is finding themselves but discovering nothing.
Someone trying to figure out whether or not to end a relationship might pick fights but then apologize or become distant and emotionally unavailable until their significant other decides they want to end it. Now all of a sudden they’re needy and happy to be vulnerable but in another month or so the cycle repeats itself.
Stage 2 is like dipping your big toe in a pool, deciding it’s too cold, and repeating the process over and over again.
STAGES OF CHANGE #3 – PREPARATION. ALSO KNOWN AS I’VE BEEN DRINKING GREEN TEA ALL DAMN DAY
Remember the wrestler, Ultimate Warrior? This guy was awesome. Hands down my favorite wrestler of all-time and no I did not eat my boogers or play the game Risk with my buddies until 4 am while we debated who the most powerful Superhero is. Who am I kidding, I played Risk and still debate that with my buddies they’re both awesome but I swear I never ate my boogers… maybe once.
The Ultimate Warrior was probably always on amphetamines. This guy was amped and ready to go 24/7. That’s sort of what stage 3 preparation is like. You’re ready to make some changes and super pumped about doing so. You’re 100% all-in and ready to change EVERYTHING.
You join a gym, map out your diet for the next month or two, purchase a new pair of running shoes, buy an online personal development course, invest in a new wardrobe so you can get back on the dating scene, or maybe start looking for new jobs or buy a course about how to start an online business.
This stage can be summed up by extreme motivation and determination. Trying to rely on willpower to get you through change and promises to yourself about how everything will be different this time around.
STAGES OF CHANGE #4 – ACTION. ALSO KNOWN AS I’VE OFFICIALLY HAD ENOUGH. LETS DANCE.
This is the stage where a behavior begins to change. You go to the gym and workout, you put in your resignation letter at work, you end a relationship or start a new one, you prepare meals for the week, or at least stare at a piece of broccoli. The action stage is observable.
This stage is an interesting one. You may have entered the action stage before with guns blazing. You go from couch to marathon, no workouts to two-a-days, Twinkies, and coke (the beverage not the drugs) for breakfast to eggs and spinach. Most people approach the action stage with an all or nothing mentality. They try to rely on willpower and motivation over discipline and consistency. The action stage for most people can best be defined as big dramatic lifestyle changes.
Unfortunately this all or nothing big dramatic change approach usually leads to failure in the final and most important stage of change.
STAGES OF CHANGE #5 – MAINTENANCE. ALSO KNOWN AS THE UNICORN STAGE
I disagree with the old adage that getting started is the hardest part. I believe that consistently keeping it up over the long-haul is far more difficult for most. That’s why I refer to the maintenance stage as the Unicorn stage. Because for many people it just doesn’t exist.
Why is this?
I believe it’s because we do a terrible job setting ourselves up for success in stages 1 through 4. We forget that we actually have to live and our perfect plan for change is probably going to be royally fucked up by our mood, stress, work, kids, peer pressure, environment, and a host of other things.
We tried to change too much at once and it all just got overwhelming so we revert back to old habits because they’re easy, we’re familiar with them, they don’t take as much effort. They provide more pleasure than pain and their safe and secure.
This leads to stage 6 which is known as a termination. The change cycle ends and repeats itself in another few months.
STEP 1 FOR FIXING THE BROKEN CHANGE CYCLE: BE HONEST WITH YOURSELF
If you listen to Nike they’ll tell you to “Just Do It.” Yeah, I get it and that’s great to help you get started but not much of a plan to keep you from the Unicorn stage.
Most people know what to do but struggle to get themselves to do it consistently enough to actually see measurable progress. We end up going back to the things we know are bad for us and avoid doing the things we know are good for us like exercising, eating more real food, and not smoking.
We blame things like time and tell ourselves that we’re just lazy. None of which is true. We don’t have time because it’s not really that important to us and we call ourselves lazy because we don’t want to deal with the struggle that comes with creating great change. Instead of taking personal responsibility for our current situation we blame everyone and everything except for ourselves.
That may come across as un-empathetic but in reality, it’s not. The definition of empathy is the ability to understand the situation of another person’s condition from their perspective. You can’t expect empathy if you’re not being honest with yourself and others.
You didn’t have time to workout? Well it’s because of the choices you made that day and maybe even the day before, or weeks before that didn’t create time in your day to workout.
I’ve spent the better part of 18 years ruining relationships. I could blame my crazy work schedule and you could empathize with me by telling me I’m a busy man and am focused on what I want. And I do have a crazy work schedule and that’s very sweet of you to empathize with me but the truth is I’ve made a dating or having a girlfriend a priority. I choose to work 12 and sometimes 16 hour days. I choose to spend a Friday night writing an article or taking a coaching call. I choose to say no to dinner and drinks and instead read a book on behavioral psychology. And I’m ok with this for now because I’m honest with myself and the choices that I make about how I spend my time… mostly.
But until a person can say deeply and honestly, “I am what I am today because of the choices I made yesterday,” that person cannot say, “I choose otherwise.” – Stephen Covey
STEP 2 FOR FIXING THE BROKEN CHANGE CYCLE: CHANGE YOUR IDENTITY
Your behaviors are a collection of your current identity. If you identify yourself as a busy person you’ll act in a way that confirms this bias. You’ll fill your schedule with things to do and create to-do lists where you cross one thing off only to add two more. Never giving yourself time to work out or pursue a new hobby – because you’re a busy person and busy people don’t have time for stuff like that.
I’d consider myself a people pleaser to a fault and I often catch myself doing things to confirm this belief. People pleasers try to make everyone else happy. People pleasers do things for others even if it means neglecting their own needs. People pleasers aim to make other people happy even if it’s at the expense of their own happiness. This often leads to me saying yes to everything and no to nothing. I end up with too-much-on-my-plate-isitis, overwhelmed, stressed out, sleep-deprived, and a miserable fucktard. But you’d never know because people pleasers don’t act like fucktards – we’re too busy trying to please everyone.
What you do now is an image of the person you believe you are consciously or subconsciously. For most of us the changes that we want to make require us to develop habits that we don’t already practice such as exercising regularly, cooking healthy meals, meditating, performing a sleep ritual, writing 1,000 words per day, or gratitude journaling.
So how can we do more of those things?
Step 1: Decide on the person you want to be and find the behaviors that are associated with that type of person.
Want to lose 20 pounds and be healthier? Who’s the healthiest person you know? What are some of the things they do daily? If you don’t know a healthy person no worries. What behaviors do you think they practice daily?
- 20 minutes of exercise?
- Prepare and eat real food daily
- Sleep 8 hours
- Have de-stressing techniques
- Make time for themselves
Step 2: Start accumulating tiny wins. Very very tiny wins
So right now you may have a ton of behaviors in front of you and are wondering where you should start. Pick one and only one of those behaviors to practice for the next 2 to 4 weeks and measure how consistently you practice that habit.
Let’s say you’ve decided that a healthy person exercises 20 minutes per day 5 days per week. Grab a calendar and start crossing off the days you exercise 20 minutes per day. After 2 to 4 weeks take a look at how consistent you are with practicing that habit. If you find that you were 90% or more consistent with it try adding a new habit to practice. If you struggled, try making that habit easier for you. Maybe 15 minutes of exercise per day.
You’re not trying to lose 10 pounds in 3 weeks or lift a shit ton of weight. The idea is to get away from focusing on results and instead of the process. Results are out of your control but behaviors are very much within your wheelhouse.
STEP 3 FOR FIXING THE BROKEN CHANGE CYCLE: INTENTION + ENJOYMENT + SUPPORT + BELIEF
Most of us do a great job with the intention part of creating change but forget that we’re probably going to need to enjoy the process, have support, and believe we can actually do this.
Researchers found that exercise was affected by how you feel about your intention to exercise, your attitude toward exercise, your social network’s feelings about you exercising, your feelings of competency, and your intent to exercise.
What this means is that you need to:
Intend to exercise: Pick a day, time, and place
Actually enjoy exercising: You don’t need to get to the gym. Do activities you enjoy first. Boxing, rock climbing, yoga, dance, basketball, Muay Thai, Jiu-Jitsu, whatever you like.
Surround yourself with people who support you: This can be the tough part. What if everyone is your social circle isn’t really in to improve their health? You don’t necessarily need to drop your friends and find new ones but it may require you to find a group of like-minded people to spend time with.
Believe you can actually do this: I run into far too many people who tell me they want to lose 20 pounds but immediately follow it up with, “but I’m lazy, I’m just not motivated, and a host of other I cant’s.” If this is how you feel it’s going to be hard to change your mind but you can trick it by making very small changes. 60 minutes of working out is hard. 5 minutes is easy. Start with 5 and prove to yourself that you can do this.
Now you might be saying to yourself that 5-minutes doesn’t do anything. Bullshit! It gets you started and remember you’re focusing on the process not results right now.
STEP 4 FOR FIXING THE BROKEN CHANGE CYCLE: DEVELOPING DISCIPLINE
I and most of you reading this have been raised in a society that focuses on self-esteem and not self-discipline. Kids are given participation trophies, rewarded for half-assing it, and hooray everyone wins! Whoopie!
Look, it’s great that you showed up. That often takes some courage and can be very difficult but it doesn’t mean you deserve a gold star. Fucking try. But don’t just try harder – try the right way.
I just need to try harder to most people usually means having more willpower with willpower being defined as the ability to do something you don’t want to do.
- I will stop eating any and all forms of sugar
- I will force myself to exercise 5 days per week
- I will give up bread and alcohol for 30 days
- I won’t eat any fried foods
Instead of looking at creating change from the perspective of willpower and having to give up or quit things, let’s instead cultivate change from the perspective of self-discipline and what you get to add. Self-discipline is different from willpower because it stems from the person that you want to be – your identity or the identity you want to have.
- I will add a serving of veggies to each meal
- I will include 1 to 2 palm-sized sources of protein with each meal
- I will move my body for 30 minutes after my morning cup of coffee
- I will begin meditating for 10 minutes after dinner
Before starting ask yourself how confident you are on a scale of 1 to 10 that you can practice this habit consistently (90% or better) for the next 2 to 4-weeks. If you’re not at least at a 9 confidence level think of ways you can shrink the change so that you become more confident.
For example, if you are not confident you can eat a serving of veggies with each meal for the next 2-weeks what about just with lunch? More confident you can do that?
As stated before, watch your progress from 2 to 4-weeks with a calendar or apps like stickK or productive. Seeing progress like this is extremely motivating – you won’t want to break the chain once you’ve got it started.
Leo Babauta, the Zen Habits guru and author of The Power of Less tells us that if you want to cultivate change in your life you need to focus on one thing at time. By focusing on 1 habit, practicing it daily and at the same time if possible, measuring your progress, and checking in daily with an accountability partner, app, or whatever – increases your chances of success greatly.
You are up to 80% more likely to be able to change a habit if you focus on one thing at a time versus trying to change multiple things at once. I for one trust Leo – just take a look at some of the things he’s been able to accomplish with this method.
In his book The 4-Hour Body, Tim Ferriss talks about discovering your minimum effective dose (MED). This is something that Nautilus creator Arthur Jones has discussed as well.
The minimum effective dose (MED) is the smallest dose that will produce the desired outcome and anything beyond that is a waste of time and energy. For instance, water boils at 100 degrees celsius at standard air pressure. Water does not become “more boiled” if you add more heat. The only thing you’re doing by adding more is increasing your gas or electric bill.
So to beat a dead horse:
- Focus on 1 habit
- Start small
- Practice it daily (and at the same time if possible)
- Measure consistency
- Check-in daily
Question of the day: What is 1 thing you plan on focusing on for the next 2 weeks to create change in your life?
Gratitudes, references, and inspiration for this article:
- Ajzen, I (1991). The theory of planned behavior. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 50:179-211.
- Chatzisaranatis, N & Haggar, M. (2005). Effects of a brief intervention based on the theory of planned behavior on leisure-time physical activity participation. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology. 27:470-487.
- James Clear and his article on Identity based habits
- Precision Nutrition and their article on how to change behavior
- The pro-Change transtheoretical model of behavior change
- Mark Manson and his ebook on self-discipline
- Photo credit