Are You Ready for Change?

Understand the science behind changing difficult behaviors.

Posted Dec 13, 2017

Have you ever struggled with changing a persistent, problematic behavior? Maybe you’ve wanted to stop smoking, quit drinking alcohol, reduce depression or anxiety or lose that extra weight, but you’ve never been able to make it happen. Perhaps you have even tried repeatedly over several months or years, but you’ve made little or no significant progress. You may now feel it’s fruitless to make another attempt and that you’ll never change.

The stages of change

Actually, there’s a lot of reason for hope in these situations. Perhaps you’re already familiar with the “Stages of Change” approach, which outlines five different stages that people predictably go through to make any significant long-lasting change in behavior.

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Originally developed by psychologist James Prochaska with further development by psychologists Carlo DiClemente, John Norcross, and many others, this well-established, research-based approach has been used successfully for decades in helping people change a wide variety of behaviors including smoking cessation, weight loss, stopping alcohol and drugs, managing anxiety and depression, and many more.

In case you’re not familiar with this approach or just need a refresher, here’s a quick overview of the stages of change:

1) Precontemplation

This is someone who is not ready for change, has little or no awareness of their problematic behaviors, and has no intention of change in the foreseeable future. They may even blame others for the many negative consequences of their behaviors. They can be quite defensive or resistant to efforts imposed on them to change their behavior. Frequently, they may be coerced or even court-ordered to participate in treatment.

2) Contemplation

The person can now recognize the problem behavior and discuss it more openly. At this stage, they have not made a commitment to change or formulated a plan for change, and they may still be several months away from taking any meaningful action to change the behavior. People can remain in contemplation for months or even years in some cases.

3) Preparation

In this stage, the person is putting together a formal action plan for change and they are getting ready to start changing the behavior within the next 30 days. They enlist others to support them, and often make both a personal and a public commitment to change. They typically have already made some small changes in their behavior.

4) Action

Here the person is taking consistent and observable action to change the problematic behavior and to replace it with more healthy behaviors. This stage typically lasts about six months and requires a considerable investment of time and energy.

5) Maintenance

This stage begins after about six months of action and may last a lifetime. The person has been largely successful in making the desired behavior change and now works to maintain their progress.

Understanding recycling

It’s also common for people to “recycle” through the stages after a setback, which may also be referred to as a relapse. For example, if someone who has stopped drinking slips up and takes a drink, they may temporarily go from action back to contemplation or preparation for a period of time. Then, after analyzing the slip and fine-tuning their action plan to hopefully avoid similar difficulties in the future, they can move back into action.

The good news is that each time you go through this recycling process, you actually increase your odds for eventual success because you continue to learn from each setback and adjust your plan so it’s more likely to be effective on your next attempt at change.

How to get started

As you read this, you may think, “this sounds really complicated” or “it sounds encouraging but I’m not sure how to start.” It’s always more effective to seek help and use proven resources as you begin to consider making any significant changes in your life.

One option you might consider to get started is to use self-help resources such as the excellent book, Changeology: 5 Steps to Realizing Your Goals and Resolutions by Dr. John Norcross, which describes each of the stages of change in more detail, along with specific strategies to help you move forward from contemplation to preparation to action to maintenance. In a future post, we’ll go through nine of these strategies in detail.

Or if you would like to see an example of a more comprehensive treatment manual using the stages of change approach with substance abuse issues, check out SAMHSA’s “Enhancing Motivation for Change in Substance Abuse Treatment.”

Although many people can successfully navigate this process of change without professional help, it’s recommended to get the support of a counselor, therapist, peer supporter, coach, trainer or other professionals to assist you with your journey of self-change. They can provide support, advice, feedback, and accountability, all of which can increase your overall likelihood of success.

I’ve used the stages of change successfully with both personal behaviors of my own I’ve worked to improve and in helping many others with personal goals related to mental health and recovery from mental illness or addiction. I’m a huge fan of this approach and I encourage you to learn more about it and give it a try.

Copyright David Susman, 2017.


Norcross, J. C. (2012) Changeology: 5 Steps to Realizing Your Goals and Resolutions. New York: Simon & Schuster.