You may be planning for the future, remedying choices from the past, or so burnt-out that you know your life right now is unsustainable. Whatever your reason, change is a process and it is helpful to understand the stages you go through to create something new in your life!
The first stage of change is called precontemplation. It might have been yesterday or a month ago, but at some point the thing you now want to change wasn’t even on your radar. This could be because you didn’t know there was a problem yet, you were in denial that a problem existed, or you felt helpless.
Once you recognize that you must change something you enter the second stage, contemplation. Here you acknowledge the problem, but you aren’t exactly sure what to do about it. You may think about circumstances that could prevent change from happening, or obstacles in your way. You may even feel like change isn’t worth the effort, yet eventually you decide you must move forward.
This takes you to the third stage of change, preparation. This is often small steps like doing research, making a “to do” list, or reading this article. You might also write down your goals, or a vision for the future that is motivating you to change. All of these create a strong foundation for change and will improve your chances of succeeding long-term.
For example, if your goal is to get in better shape then purchasing a gym membership would be an example of preparation. When you actually drive to the gym and workout you enter the next stage of change, action. In this stage you are regularly and actively doing things that get you closer to your goal. To help you succeed in the action stage you might ask friends for support, or set up rewards to reinforce positive choices and behaviors.
The fifth stage of change is called maintenance. In this stage the new behaviors you choose become easier, and your old behaviors may have even lost their appeal. However, certain events or triggers may send you back to those old behaviors. This stage is called relapse.
Relapse is an inevitable part of change, and that is why understanding change as a process is so important! Many people get stuck in an all-or-nothing mindset and feel like they failed if they go back to an old habit. However, there will be times when your brain wants to return to familiar and known patterns that may not support your future goals. Relapse can actually be helpful because it is an opportunity to learn what stressors, actions, people, or environments trigger unwanted behaviors so you can avoid them, or plan ahead for next time.
These stages of change can happen quickly or over a long period of time. They’re important because they lay the groundwork for sustainable habits. If you skip preparation and go right to action you may not have the information or resources you need to stay successful. If you give up or get angry at yourself when you relapse you’re missing out on important information that supports positive change in your life.
Check in with yourself and your goals, and ask, “What stage of change am I in right now”?