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How change really happens?

Make it happen

To finish off my mini-series on NON-resolutions in the lead up to the new year, I thought I’d share some information on one particular theory of how change happens, especially for any of you who have ever tried, or who currently aspire to change an unhelpful pattern of behaviour. I think this is especially important at this time of year when many people become very intent on  doing things differently with a whole brand new year about to dawn. I hope that before you create a list of new year’s resolutions as long as your arm, you’ve already read my previous posts on the topic here and here.

So about the change process… I know that when I share this information with my clients, they tell me it’s interesting and useful and usually grab some paper to copy it down after I’ve drawn it on the whiteboard (that’s when I tell them to just take a picture with their phone. What did we do before we could take a picture of everything with our phones?!) so I hope it’s helpful to you too.

This particular model of change, whose proper name is the Transtheoretical Model of Change (or TTM for short, developed by Prochaska and DiClemente in 1983) suggests that when it comes to behaviour change, most people move through six stages, as shown in the figure below:


change, goals, transtheoretical model of change

Stages of Change

Now let me talk you through the stages, hopefully without boring you…

Precontemplation is when you don’t see any need to change or you’re not yet ready. In pre-contemplation, you might be unaware of the negative effects of your current behaviour or you perceive the pros of your behaviour to outweigh the cons.

When you move to the Contemplation stage, you are considering making a change, but you’re still very much in the “will I or won’t I?” mindset. In the contempation stage, the pros and cons of a behaviour are fairly evenly balanced and this stage is characterised by a LOT of ambivalence. If you know someone who is in the contemplation stage (or if you are yourself), it can help to engage in some objective weighing up of pros and cons, but it’s important to recognise that if someone is in the contemplation phase, attempting to force a change can backfire.

Preparation occurs when you recognise that things need to change. The costs of the behaviour start to outweigh the benefits and you move towards thinking about how this change might look in your life. This is a time for thinking and planning, gathering resources and defining goals.

Action is when you implement the change, whatever it may be. You might commence the exercise plan or sign up for the quit smoking program or delete the ex’s number from your phone. In this stage, the new behaviour might feel unfamiliar and urges to revert back to the old way can be strong. This is where your good preparation will pay off (such as removing temptations from the environment), and so does mindfulness (there’s a thing called ‘urge surfing’ we can talk about another time).

Maintenance is when you’ve been practising the new behaviour for a while and it’s beginning to feel easier. Urges reduce or diminish and the new way of living is starting to become your new ‘normal’. When you’ve maintained a change for long enough, you exit the cycle and get on with living.

BUT… you’ll notice another stage in the process and that is Relapse. This is when, sometime after you’ve initiated a change, you revert to your old behaviours. This is the bit I think is most important when people find they’ve broken all those New Year’s Resolutions, as I alluded to in this post.

When it comes to making any kind of long term behaviour change, slip-ups are usually an inevitable part of the process. Sadly though, many people see a slip-up as a failure and get really down on themselves. When that happens, they frequently give up completely and a slip-up becomes a full blown relapse. It doesn’t need to be that way, and here’s why:

If you’re able to accept slip-ups as a normal part of the process, you can learn important lessons from them. For example, you might be able to identify the triggers which led to your regression so you can know to avoid them in future, or you might recognise something in your environment that needs to change to more effectively support you in achieving your goals.

The good news is that most people who experience a slip up usually only regress back through one or two stages; for example you might revert from maintenance to action, or from action to contemplation. The research indicates that particularly when it comes to health-related behaviour changes, most people don’t revert all the way to Pre-contempation. So once you’ve started on the path, you might cycle around it several times on your journey to permanent change and that’s ok. Being on the path is the important thing.

Are you on the path? I’d love to know if this has helped you recognise where you’re at in the process.

I hope you’ve found this post (and this series) helpful as you prepare to ring in the new year.  🙂

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Cass Dun clinical psychologist
Hi, I’m Cass.

I'm here to help you find freedom from psychological struggles so that you can live your happiest, most meaningful and fulfilling life.

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