Why is it so hard to change? We all want to do it, once we feel that discomfort between where we are in life and where we want to be. Sure, there are plenty of people out there who say they can help you. Psychologists, psychiatrists, New Age gurus, consultants and coaches tap into this multimillion dollar market. There’s enough conflicting advice out there to make you wonder whether there really is a proven way to alter your behavior in positive ways.
If you really want to know how to change, the best way to find out is to study people who have successfully made great changes in their lives. This was the reasoning of James O. Prochaska, a research psychologist who wanted to help people to overcome very serious habits, especially alcoholism and smoking.
Prochaska was aware that different types of therapy helped different patients more than others. Combining his understanding of successful self-changers and his knowledge of different psychotherapy models, he formulated what is now called the Transtheoretical Model of change. Its two main tenets: successful behavioral change unfolds over a period of time according to six basic stages, and each stage is best supported by a different type of intervention. Unlike so many other approaches, Prochaska’s model has had proven success in everything from drug addiction to weight loss, adolescent rehabilitation and cancer management.
Let’s cut to the chase. Here are the 6 stages, summarized so nicely in Wikipedia that I stole them:
1. Precontemplation – lack of awareness that life can be improved by a change in behavior
2. Contemplation – recognition of the problem, initial consideration of behavior change, and information gathering about possible solutions and actions
3. Preparation – introspection about the decision, reaffirmation of the need and desire to change behavior, and completion of final pre-action steps
4. Action – implementation of the practices needed for successful behavior change (e.g. exercise class attendance)
5. Maintenance – consolidation of the behaviors initiated during the action stage
6. Termination – former problem behaviors are no longer perceived as desirable (e.g. skipping a run results in frustration rather than pleasure)
Although the stages are progressive, in real life people usually move back and forth through these stages until they finally succeed. Relapse is normal and expected.
An approach that emphasizes taking concrete action isn’t appropriate for someone from precontemplation (Stage 1) to contemplation (Stage 2) because the person isn’t ready. However, a self-awareness technique, be it psychoanalysis or a simple self-assessment method, might move a person to the second stage.
A good change agent (therapist, coach, etc.) will be able to identify what stage you are in and use the approach that is most appropriate.
Interested in learning more? Read Prochaska’s Change for Good. If you are working with a change agent and you feel things aren’t moving forward, find out if the approach she is using matches your needs at your current stage. For self-changers, use the Stages of Change framework to move yourself into more desirable behaviors and to understand yourself (empathically) when you are in a rut.