A new moment is always on the horizon: new days, months, and years! We often use these milestones to set goals and reflect on how we would like to behave in the future. Is this the year that you start rock climbing? Will you finally get started on writing a novel this? Do you plan to put down your Juul in January and never touch it again?
It’s easy to say that we want to pick up new healthy habits, especially in the excitement of a new year or month. Maintaining and fully adopting those habits always seems to be the hard part. But what if I told you there were strategies for holding onto habits until they become a part of your life?
Well, they have!
What Is the Transtheoretical Model of Change?
This model was developed in the 1970s by James Prochaska and Carlo DiClemente as they studied people who tried to quit smoking. They found that simply taking action didn’t set people up for long-term success. Their model allowed participants to actually stick to their goals by going through specific stages.
People who successfully move through the first five stages of the model are more likely to stick to their goals and adopt positive habits.
What Makes Transtheoretical Model of Change Unique?
This model is unique in that it taps into the readiness of a person to change. The model takes into account that people may not be ready to change and that their readiness determines how effective their actions and new behaviors will be.
If you know someone who has struggled with addiction, you might have heard someone say that the addict has to want to get sober before they can make big moves (like attending AA or going to a rehabilitation facility.) This idea aligns with the transtheoretical model of change. If a person does not see and believe the benefits of making a change, they are more likely to relapse.
With each stage in this model, I will also include intervention strategies that will help you or someone you know move to the next step. This information is useful whether you want to quit smoking, whether you want your partner to go to the gym more often, etc. Understand these steps of change and you can help transition yourself or others into a more positive, happy, and healthy person.
Permanently changing a behavior or picking up a habit does not happen overnight. Some of these steps will last for months at a time before the person is ready to move forward. If you want to see a loved one quit a bad habit or start a new one, be patient with them.
Even if your loved one is in denial, they might be in the first stage of the transtheoretical model. And this means there is an opportunity for them to move forward.
Step 1: Precontemplation
The first step of the model is the precontemplation stage. A person in the precontemplation stage may be months away from actually taking action. They might not believe that taking action will be worth their time. If they try to weigh the pros and cons of starting a new habit, they will downplay the pros.
Examples of the Precontemplation Stage
Think about some habits that you know are good for you. There you go - you're in the precontemplation stage! Maybe you think that a vegan diet would help to reduce your carbon footprint, but you don’t think the high prices of produce and saying good-bye to dairy is worth the switch. More research is needed before you can fully get on board with the idea that veganism is a worthy lifestyle choice. It’s time to ask yourself some questions about your health, your diet, and your carbon footprint.
Society may try to put you in the precontemplation stage, like they do with smokers. Smokers may ignore the warning labels and commericals that tell them that smoking is bad for them; the "pros" outweigh the "cons" for people who are addicted to nicotine.
Moving Through the Precontemplation Stage
In order to move out of the precontemplation stage, the person needs to look within. A shift in perspective is necessary before the person can see that their actions are hurting themselves in the long run. They may have a hunch that a change needs to be made, but the brevity of their current actions just isn’t apparent.
Helping someone out of the precontemplation stage requires patience. It’s important to validate where the person is at in their journey. Rushing them into action would require skipping two key steps. Instead, encourage the person to engage in some introspection and evaluation of their current behavior. When explaining the consequences of their actions, make it personal to them. Most importantly, reinforce the idea that they are in control and can change their behavior when the time is right for them.
Step 2: Contemplation
Once a person starts to really think about the consequences of their actions, they enter the contemplation stage. Many people stage in this stage for months or years. They understand that their behavior is hurting themselves or others. They can see themselves making a change within the next six months of their life. But something is still holding them back.
For many people, they still have a skewed view of change that prevents them from moving further. They see change as “losing” or “giving up” a habit that has been a part of their whole life. This overshadows the benefits of gaining a new habit.
Examples of the Contemplation Stage
Smokers tend to marinate in this phase for a long time. They understand that smoking is bad for their lungs. But smoking also provides a way to socialize or destress. They have a hard time accepting the idea that they will have to have a coffee without a cigarette or can’t take a smoke break when things get hectic at work.
Moving Through the Contemplation Stage
How can you get out of the contemplation stage? Identify the things that are holding you back. Does the loss of a cigarette with your coffee really outweigh gaining the ability to take a jog without losing your breath? Does the annoyance of moving your schedule around outweigh the benefits you’ll gain from going to the gym in the morning? Continue to look at the pros and cons of changing your behavior. When you get to a point when you feel confident to move forward, validate your readiness and confirm that it’s time to change.
Encouraging someone past the contemplation stage may require similar encouragement and validation that you have been practicing. Continue to tell the person that they can change when they are ready and that no one is pushing them. At this phase, you can help them identify barriers and introduce positive outcomes that they might not be seeing. Sure, they lose having a cigarette with coffee. But now they can enjoy their coffee inside and have a more relaxing morning in the winters.
Step 3: Preparation
Okay, so what happens when a person has decided you are going to make a change? When it comes to smoking, many people start with reducing the amount of cigarettes they smoke.
This is normal. Small changes are part of the third stage of change: preparation. People in the preparation stage are fully ready to make a big change within the upcoming month. They understand the benefits of making the change and want to move forward. But rather than diving in headfirst, they just “test the waters” of change.
Examples of the Preparation Stage
If you are a smoker who has started to seriously research different forms of quitting, you're in the preparation stage. You don't have to have a nicotine patch or download an app to help you quit just yet. Exploring your options ahead of time will save you time and frustration before you actually take action.
Moving Through the Preparation Stage
This is an exciting opportunity to prepare yourself or someone else to make the leap. Enjoy your time in the preparation phase; the more prep work you do, the easier it will be to transition into the action and maintenance phases.
Set yourself up for success by:
- Doing research on upcoming obstacles that you might face (and how people have moved past them)
- Creating SMART goals for yourself
- Building a plan of action that looks one day, week, month, or year down the line
- Finding a support group
- Creating a list of mantras or affirmations that will put you in the right mindset when you are ready to take action and maintain change
- Practicing mindfulness meditation to prepare yourself emotionally when you come to a crossroads
- Looking up alternative plans of action in case yours does not work out
The more knowledge you have moving forward, the easier it will be to evaluate failures and move forward after successes.
If you are helping another person during this phase, remember that they have to do the work themselves. You can help them find support groups and build a plan, but you can’t do these things for them. Continue to validate their ability to take action and encourage the work they are doing by planning and preparing themselves to move forward.
Step 4: Action
It’s important to remember that the first three steps provide a foundation for the action stage. Quitting cold turkey just moments after watching a documentary about the dangers of smoking works for some - but it’s not guaranteed that everyone will successfully quit smoking that way. Precontemplation, contemplation, and preparation are extremely important steps. After all, you have to want and know that it’s time to change.
This is why New Year’s Resolutions don’t always work out. We make these resolutions in December and give ourselves less than a month (sometimes less than a week) to prepare. Without a plan of action or a support group, action only leads to insurmountable obstacles. Preparation helps to prepare for those obstacles and have a plan when (not if) you encounter them.
Examples of the Action Stage
Reducing the amount of cigarettes you smoke is a small step. Putting down the pack for good is a giant leap. At this point, a person has entered the “action” stage.
Again, the action stage may look differently for every person trying to change. Quitting cold turkey may be the only way for you to stop smoking, or you may be more successful using a Juul or chewing sunflower seeds in place of your habit. Choose the action that is right for you.
Moving Through the Action Stage
The preparation and the research doesn’t stop when the action phase begins. If you are ready to take action, know that your journey is far from over. Continue to seek out support groups and outside resources. When you do encounter success, be sure to reward yourself.
When you are supporting someone else who is taking action, remember that they have to make the change. You can reward them when they do well and help to redirect them to alternative actions if they encounter obstacles. Most importantly, you can reinforce the idea that they can face obstacles head on. Remind them of the long-term benefits of change and the planning they have done before taking action. This assistance is crucial - support helps us all as we move through these steps.
The action stage lasts for 3-6 months, in which the person will most likely face multiple obstacles and dances with relapsing or going back into old behaviors.
Step 5: Maintenance
Once the person has kept up with their change for at least six months, they enter the maintenance stage of change. Relapse is still possible, but a person in the maintenance stage feels more confident in their ability to stick to their change in behavior.
Examples of the Maintenance Stage
In those first six months of quitting smoking, you may find yourself fighting the urge to pick up a cigarette or avoiding other habits that trigger your desire to smoke. When you're in the maintenance stage, that "fight" is not so dramatic. Avoiding cigarettes becomes easier and easier, and although you do have to make a conscious effort to stay cigarette-free, that effort is less and less exhausting.
Moving Through the Maintenance Stage
Temptation will continue to pop up during this phase. If you want to avoid a relapse, it’s important to know that these temptations exist and have a plan to avoid them. It’s also important to know that relapses may happen. The more honest you stay with yourself about this possibility, the easier it will be to recover after a relapse happens.
If you are supporting someone in the maintenance stage, it’s important to reinforce these ideas. Reinforce the rewards the person gives themselves after success. Have honest conversations about the person’s fear of relapsing and what they will do if they slip up. Continue to be there for the person and provide support.
Step 6: Relapse
Relapses happen. They just do. When it comes to substance abuse, the relapse rate falls between 40% and 60%. It can be hard, even after six months or five years, to avoid temptation. Falling back on old behaviors is normal.
Examples of the Relapse Stage
That one cigarette at a party may feel like a bomb that destroyed your months of preparation, action, and maintenance. Do not worry. What you do after relapse will determine whether or not you stay in the model and continue to change.
Moving Through the Relapse Stage
Shaming yourself for relapse isn’t always healthy. Taking the time to honestly look at what triggered the relapse is healthy. Look closely at what barriers you face and when those barriers become “too much.”
This information can help you moving forward. Reconfirm your commitment to change. Pull from what you learned in the first three stages of the transtheoretical model. And try again.
When a loved one relapses, you should help them with these strategies. Evaluate the situation and what triggered the relapse. Build a stronger coping strategy based on what the person learned early in the process. Reaffirm their ability to move forward and tackle their goal.
10 Processes Of Change
These are the six stages of change. And as I mentioned, there are processes that you can help yourself or another person move through each of these steps.
In the 1980s, researchers laid out these 10 processes of change. They have since become crucial guidelines for intervention programs and other programs that assist people through major changes and transitions.
The first five processes of change are best applied to the early stages. They are experiential processes and involve assessment rather than direct actions.
Use these five processes of change while helping yourself or others through the precontemplation, contemplation, and preparation stages:
- Consciousness Raising
- Dramatic Relief
- Environmental Reevaluation
- Social Liberation
- Self Reevaluation
Consciousness raising is the process of raising general awareness of a behavior and its consequences. Recalling some of the information you know about the dangers of addiction raises your consciousness on the issue.
Dramatic relief is the process of emotionally responding to information about a behavior and its consequences. If you have ever watched a powerful anti-smoking commercial and recognized your intense feelings after the commercial, you have undergone dramatic relief.
Environmental reevaluation is the process of reassessing how the behavior impacts the physical or social environment surrounding that person. Showing a friend a documentary on how plastic waste climate change can encourage them to evaluate how much plastic they use every day.
Social liberation is the process of seeing opportunities that allow for the behavior to change. When cities started to ban smoking in bars and restaurants, social liberation was taking place. More people were encouraged to quit smoking because they would have to go outside to smoke and wouldn’t be tempted while eating a meal.
Self reevaluation connects the person to their behavior and its consequences. People who are trying to be more fit may try to find role models who exercise regularly and look great. Connecting good behaviors to those role models can help someone undergo self reevaluation.
The last five processes of change are behavioral. They are best suited for the last three stages of the transtheoretical model, when people are ready to take action.
The processes are:
- Helping relationships
- Reinforcement management
- Stimulus control
Self-liberation is the process of committing to the behavior change. When you set a New Year’s Resolution, you undergo the process of self-liberation. (This is why it’s important to properly prepare for your New Year’s Resolutions before you actually commit to them.) Experts believe that giving yourself three “options” or “resolutions” for one behavior change will increase your chances of successfully changing the behavior. For example, eating right, working out, and taking daily walks are all options that lead to a healthier life.
Helping relationships are crucial to maintaining change. This process includes building a support system through the attendance of meetings or by engaging in discussions with others. Every time you go to an AA meeting, you engage in this process.
Counter-conditioning helps to shift our perspective from “quitting” or “losing” a habit to “gaining” or “beginning” a more positive habit. Discovering more positive alternatives to your current behaviors helps to counter-condition you and set you up for success. Replacing an evening beer with an evening cup of tea is just one way you can counter-condition yourself while cutting down on booze.
Reinforcement management is the process of both rewarding and reevaluating behavior after you take action. Did you go to the gym every day this week? Offer yourself a reward. Did your partner fail to meet their word count goals during the month? Take some time to recognize the shortcoming and reassess.
Penalties are part of this process, but rewards for good behavior are generally more effective.
Stimulus control is crucial for avoiding triggers and relapses. The person undergoing change must understand what stimuli is triggering and when it appears. Using stimulus control, the person then removes that stimuli from their life or makes a plan to actively avoid it. Cutting ties with enabling friends is an effective form of stimulus control, provided that you use counter conditioning and find a more positive support group.
These processes don’t have to be done separately. You don’t have to do them in order. The most important thing you can do is to be aware of these processes and incorporate them into your life when appropriate.
Remember to be patient with yourself or others throughout this process. Each stage can take months - you may be contemplating your change for a long time before you actually take action. But moving through each stage with patient and support from the processes of change can help you create a more positive life for yourself.