Ready for Change? The 5 Stages of Making Lasting Lifestyle Transformations

  • By Jennifer Mulder
  • 2 January 2017
  • 3 minute read
Ready for Change? The 5 Stages of Making Lasting Lifestyle Transformations | The Health Sessions

Do you dream of getting fit, strong, happy or more mindful in 2017?

The start of a new year brings out the feeling of beginning with a fresh slate, with 365 brand-new days ahead in which anything is possible. The crispy clean calendar holds the promise of reaching exciting goals, but we all know that many of us have given up on our New Year’s resolutions by the end of January. How can you be the one who makes their intentions stick?

The key to making your health and happiness goals come true is translating your desired end result in the helpful habits needed to achieve them. To get a stronger, toned and more energetic body, you’ll need to eat healthily and move your body on a regular basis. And if you want to feel more zen, you could start a daily practice of meditation or keep a gratitude journal.

Countless of articles have been written on transforming your life for good, but most leave out one important question: How ready for change are you? 

The 5 Stages of Change

Changing your daily routines in order to reach your goals isn’t as simple as making the decision to go for it. People move through a series of stages when they want to modify their behaviour. The Stages of Change Model from Prochaska, DiClemente and Norcross (1992) distinguishes 5 phases of change:

  1. Pre-Contemplation. In this stage, you’re not considering making any changes. You don’t see the need to and don’t intend on taking any action in the foreseeable future.
  2. Contemplation. When you’re considering making a change, you enter the stage of contemplation. You know you probably should eat healthier or exercise more, but you’re still on the fence: it’s hard to resist those midnight snacks and get off the couch after a tiring day.
  3. Preparation. You’ve reached the phase of committing to change: you’re setting goals, creating a plan of action and seek support to make things happen.
  4. Action. You did it! You’re taking concrete steps to change your lifestyle and reach your goals.
  5. Maintenance. In the final phase, you put your effort into making your new helpful habits stick.

So how does knowing this help you stick to your resolutions? Tuning into the stage you’re currently in can make the process of behaviour change much more smoothly – and help make it last.

Which Stage of Change Are You In?

1. Pre-Contemplation

Pre-comtemplation is one of the most challenging stages for outsiders, because how do you reach people who do not see the point of changing?

If you’re reading this article, we can safely assume that you’re looking forward to making some changes in order to make your New Year’s Resolutions come true this year. However, if you’re close to someone in the Pre-contemplation phase, here’s an example how you can move from ‘not ready’ to ‘getting ready’:

Deep down, you probably already know that drinking one too many glasses of wine one too many nights in a row is harming your health and happiness. But you might feel reluctant or resistant to quit, because it will be hard to break the habit and uncomfortable to face the feelings you’ve been suppressing.

To feel the need for change, you first have to be informed about the risks of your bad behaviour and how it impacts your life. That means you have to raise awareness and gain knowledge, by paying attention to how you feel, opening up to the available information sources and asking questions.

What you can do to successfully complete this stage:

  • Don’t dismiss the concerns of family members or your doctors about your smoking/drinking behaviour/love of junk food, but try to listen with an open mind. When the people around you express their worries, don’t immediately reject them but take an honest look at yourself if they could have a point.
  • Be open to information about your harmful behaviour and how it impacts your overall well-being, or actively seek advice from (medical) professionals.
  • Pay attention to cues about how your bad habits impact your life. Maybe you notice you regularly get headaches after a booze-filled night out or that you need to catch your breath when you climb the stairs after your smoke break. Or perhaps you automatically reach for a cigarette/glass of wine/bowl of ice cream when you’re having a stressful day?
  • Try to become more aware of how your needs, lifestyle and actions are all connected.
Ready for Change? The 5 Stages of Making Lasting Lifestyle Transformations | The Health Sessions
Photo by Sylvia & Adam Stones

2. Contemplation

Ok, so you know you should lead a healthier lifestyle, but how do you give up the rewards that your bad habits bring you, like comfort, stress relief and satisfaction? In the Contemplation stage, you consider the benefits and disadvantages of changing your behaviour. The first thing you’ll need is plenty of motivation to take action on a daily basis. What’s more, you need to reach a final decision on making changes, which sounds easier than it is. Often, many barriers stand in the way of deciding to go for it, from limiting beliefs and emotions to a lack of willpower, coping skills or social support.

What you can do to successfully complete this stage:

  • Make a list of the pros and cons of changing your behaviour, in the short and the long run. Also think about how much value you attach to each (dis)advantage. Resisting the urge to snack may be uncomfortable, but maybe not as significant as the thought of not being able to actively play with your kids when your health deteriorates.
  • Imagine what your “perfect day scenario” look like. What will it feel like once you’ve successfully changed your behaviour? Try to really visualize and experience all the possible benefits instead of just rationally understanding them.
  • Switch places with your doctor/spouse/best friend. If you were them, how would you convince yourself that leading a healthier lifestyle would be good for you?
  • Detect and eliminate the barriers that stop you from making the decision to go for it. Mind your inner dialogue and challenge your negative thoughts. Learn the necessary (problem-solving) skills, seek support and find ways to curb your cravings.

3. Preparation

You’re ready to start changing your behaviour, but where do you begin? By making a plan of action that’s simple, concrete and specific.

What you can do to successfully complete this stage:

  • Write down what, how, when and how often you’ll perform your new helpful habit. Instead of resolving to “exercise more” in the new year, you should plan to go for a 20-minute walk after dinner each night or head to yoga class each Thursday at 8PM.
  • Use the principles of classic conditioning. Pairing your desired behaviour with things you do very regularly  – like meal times, taking a shower, commuting or watching your favourite weekly TV series – makes it a lot easier to remember to actually do your healthy activity.
  • Make “If-Then” plans to overcome obstacles to performing your new habits, such as a lack of time, money and energy. All you need is one simple formula: If X happens, then I’ll do Y. For example, if I’m too tired to cook, then I’ll heat up a homemade freezer meal or choose the healthiest alternative available – instead of automatically ordering take-out.
Ready for Change? The 5 Stages of Making Lasting Lifestyle Transformations | The Health Sessions
Photo by Sylvia & Adam Stones

 4. Action

Yes! You’re actually eating home-cooked meals, doing gentle stretches in the morning and practicing meditation for 5 – 10 minutes each day. So how can you keep the momentum going and make your lifestyle changes last?

What you can do to successfully complete this stage:

  • Track your progress in a bullet journal or app. Monitoring your behaviour can help you see when you’re struggling and why. Just don’t get hung up on the metrics – it’s how you feel in the long run that counts.
  • Set reminders on your phone, calendar or desk that trigger you to get out of your chair each hour, drink a glass of water or have a side salad with your regular lunch.
  • Pay attention to your inner dialogue. When undermining thoughts enter your mind, practice a thought stop and replace negative statements with more constructive ones.
  • Design your environment for succes. Make some simple adjustments to your living area that make it easier to perform your new healthy behaviour and harder to automatically do your bad habit.

5. Maintenance 

It’s an all-too-common scenario: you enthusiastically hit the gym and prep green smoothies, only to find yourself slacking off after a few weeks when you’re too tired, busy or unmotivated to keep up your good habit. What can you do to make your healthy resolutions stick in the long run?

It helps to know in which situations you find it hard to stick your plans. Maybe you find it difficult to stay strong in the face of tempting snacks. Maybe you tend to fall back into old habits when you’re tired or stressed. Once you know your Achilles’ heel(s), you can recognize them and substitute your automatic, not-so-healthy response for a better one.

What’s more, you can make an active effort to prevent a relapse or learn to deal with setbacks in a constructive way. Be careful about how you explain the cause of your relapse to yourself. People who attribute their lapse to their own failure are more likely to feel guilty, angry and disappointed, which can lead to even more bad behaviour to escape those negative feelings. Blaming stable, internal factors beyond your control for your setback (“I have no willpower and I’ll never be able to stop drinking/binge-eating/smoking”) makes it especially difficult to make lasting changes. Instead, try to think of your relapse as a temporary inability to cope effectively with that specific high-risk situation. Study your mistake, learn from it – what triggered your behaviour, which thoughts and feelings did you experience, what better choices could you have made and why didn’t you? – and adjust your plans accordingly.

What you can do to move to the maintain your new habit:

  • Make a (mental) list of potential risk situations that trigger bad behaviours, such as negative emotions, feeling social pressure, hormonal cravings or an unbalanced lifestyle.
  • Analyze the behaviour chain that lead to your relapse: what happened, what did you think and feel, and how that trigger your bad habit?
  • Come up with a more adequate coping response – one that’s easy to implement in any situation and that can become your new default mode. For example, if you crave chocolate whenever you get tired and stressed, you could distract yourself, brush your teeth, put satisfying your sweet tooth off for 5 minutes or carry a healthier snack with you.

Change is a process, not a one-time event. Which stage of change are you in? And what will you do today to successfully move to the next phase? 

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