How We Change

by Cherry Pedrick, RN
Reprinted from, November 26, 2001, Revised

In studying habit change, one of the most interesting concepts are the theories about how and why people change. Dr. James Prochaska, Ph.D. and his colleagues have done a great deal of research about this. He developed the idea of stages of change. Knowing what stage of change you are in is important to any type of effort to change.

The precontemplation stage is the place where a person has no intention of changing. You may know someone who seems to be in desperate need of change, but refuses all efforts to encourage change. People in this stage don’t see a need to change; they may not recognize the negative effects of a behavior. Perhaps you want someone else to change a habit and are meant by excuses and refusal. Or your loved one makes a weak attempt at change, just to please you, but slips back into the old behaviors. It may be that he or she just wasn’t ready to change, hadn’t decided to change. You can help by encouraging movement into the contemplation stage.

In the contemplation stage, a person is thinking about changing a behavior. If you are in this stage, you are probably weighing the pros and cons of a habit and exploring ways to change. The benefits of staying the same may still outweigh the effort to change.

The preparation stage brings a person closer to making serious efforts to change. If you are in this stage, you may have already tried to change before, but maybe you didn’t have all the tools and skills or the information you needed to successfully change a habit. As Thomas Edison said, “Results! Why man, I have gotten a lot of results.

I know several thousand things that won’t work.”

The action stage is the one that brings noticeable results. In this stage, you are making serious efforts to change and are likely freely telling people you are making changes. We give credit to ourselves and others when we hit this stage of change, often ignoring the efforts in the precontemplation, contemplation, and preparation stages. I think it’s important to offer praise for the accomplishments in the other stages too – listing advantages and disadvantages of changing, researching the habit or behavior and methods of changing, choosing a method, and deciding to make changes. 

Often, we ignore the last stage of change, the maintenance stage. This is an important stage; this is where we put into practice skills to prevent relapse. This stage can last a lifetime. Most habits don’t just change and stay changed without further efforts. We must work at keeping the bad habit away and continuing to develop good habits to replace the bad habit. 

How does understanding the stages of change help us make changes in our lives? I think it’s important, not only to acknowledge the precontemplation and contemplation stages, but to recognize that it is perfectly okay to be in these stages. It is part of the decision making process. If you want to move on to the next stage, continue to research your habit, behavior, or addiction and how others have successfully changed. You might consider talking to a close friend or family member, or a professional, about the idea of making changes. Above all, remember that there is help and hope. You can make changes in your life. Next week we’ll discuss ways to move into the action stage of change.

Be sure to check out The Habit Change Workbook:
How to Break Bad Habits and Form Good Ones