Back in the year 2000, when I was a fledgling personal fitness trainer, I started to study coaching. I could tell that my weight-loss clients were not finding it easy to stick to recommendations like walking more, eating less sugar, drinking less alcohol. I knew they wanted to change, but they didn’t seem able to. I wanted to help.
Luckily, two behavioral researchers, Prochaska and DiClemente, put their brilliant minds together in the early 1980s and delineated a simple little theory that would go on to help millions of people work through sometimes difficult lifestyle behavior changes. I wrote an article in 2007 to help fitness professionals learn how to use Prochaska & DiClemente’s Transtheoretical Model of Behavior Change (which is commonly referred to as “The Stages of Change”). Now, I’m going to help you learn how to use this brilliant little theory in your own life, when you’re toying with the idea of changing some behavior or adding a new creative or healthy practice to your life.
The Stages of Behavior Change
There are 5 stages in the Stages of Change. To illustrate the stages clearly, let’s take “adding a yoga practice to your wellness routine” as a possible behavior.
Precontemplation: In this stage, the concept of starting a yoga practice is not even on your radar. You might hear your friends talk about it and think, “Oh, that’s nice for them” and then not even give it a second thought. In other words, you’re nowhere near actually starting to practice yoga. It’s not interesting, you don’t see the benefits, and you have no interest at all.
Contemplation: In this stage, you suddenly have some interest in how your friends’ yoga practice is going because you see how happy they seem to be. They love it; they’re sleeping better and feeling stronger. You start to listen to what they have to say and ask yourself, Will yoga help me feel as good as they do? It’s starting to feel like not such a silly thing to do. But you know there are still drawbacks to starting a yoga practice: It takes time. You have to figure out how to fit it into your week. You don’t feel like you are flexible enough and will feel silly in class with other people. In this stage, you actively weigh the pros and cons of adding this behavior to your life, and it’s likely you will make a choice to change within 6 months.
Preparation: In this stage, you’re pretty convinced that yoga is a good idea, so you start to ask your friends questions about their yoga practice: Where do they go to classes? How often are they practicing? What do you need to know in order to start? Do they recommend a specific teacher? You engage them in a conversation, and you’re actively making plans so that a yoga class will fit into your own life. You follow my tips for how to start a yoga practice as a beginner and start calling the yoga studios near you to see if they have a good class for you. You intend to start in the next few weeks.
Action: In this stage, you’re actually starting to add a yoga practice to your life. You take your friends’ recommendations and ultimately end up going to class with one of them, just to make sure you go instead of deciding last minute to stay at home on the couch. You’ve correctly enrolled one of the most important aspects of successful, lasting behavior change: Support! You make a calendar and write--in permanent marker--your yoga class each week. You’re changing your behavior, one specific, actionable, measurable goal at a time.
Maintenance: As this stage suggests, yoga has now become a regular part of your life. You don’t even need to write your classes into your calendar anymore because you just know: Mondays and Wednesdays are your sacred yoga evenings--no dates, no dinners, no drinks after work. Your yoga classes are seamlessly merged into the rest of your life and you have no desire to change that fact. Sure, you are human, and you have to miss classes sometimes due to illness or appointments that you can’t cancel, but you know you’ll get back on the yoga bandwagon as soon as those things are done. You might even try a new class on another night to make up for the ones you missed.
There Is One More Stage…
Relapse: This “secret” sixth stage is likely to happen, and it usually is caused by some outside factor--a long vacation that gets you out of your healthy routines; an injury that keeps you from your healthy or creative activities. Once that outside factor is resolved (the vacation ends or the injury heals), you can sometimes find yourself back in the Preparation phase of the Stages of Change, considering how and when you can reintroduce your previous habit back into your life.
Relapse is not failure. Simply use the 7 steps for starting and maintaining a new practice to make sure you find exactly the right practice to introduce. If you find yourself at the Contemplation stage again, in which you’re weighing the pros and cons of going to your Monday and Wednesday classes each week (Cons: it takes time to get there! You need to pay for parking! You would rather spend those evenings with your new romantic partner!), then it’s time to think creatively about other options. What other options might you have for adding yoga to your life? Perhaps getting DVDs from the library and practicing at home in the morning before work? Or finding weekend classes that you can walk to from your house?
Remember that if you are resistant to starting a new habit that you know you really want to do, you just need to figure out the best possible way to start that habit without making it unattractive or difficult. Enlisting the help of a trained coach or a group of thoughtful friends can really help when you are on the fence between Contemplation and Preparation, especially after a relapse.
The Keys to Using the Stages of Change Effectively
I hope this explanation helps you as you explore your own enthusiasm for or resistance to adding or changing behaviors in any aspect of your life!
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