Start, Stop & Change: five stages of change

Many of my clients come to coaching to make a change.

Switch careers, stop overspending, improve their health, start a business, live more outside their comfort zone, write a book, stop living for someday, simplify and downsize, stop overworking, find more joy… the list of possible change is endless.

One of the first things I do is help clients assess their readiness to make the change they say they want.

Change is a process

We intuitively know change is a process; it doesn’t happen with the snap of our fingers. But it helps to understand the actual five stages of change.

To explore this process, I use the Stages of Change model introduced in the late ‘70s by researchers James Prochaska and Carlo DiClemente, who were studying ways to help people quit smoking.

Five stages of change

  1. Precontemplation—In this stage, a person hasn’t yet acknowledged there’s a problem behavior that needs to be changed and is not intending to take action.They’re not thinking about change and may be unaware of or resigned about their situation. Some are in denial that change is needed while others feel they have no control. The bottom line: A commitment to change hasn’t yet been made.
  2. Contemplation—In this stage, a person is becoming increasingly aware of the potential benefit of making the change. However, the costs of change also stand out, which means there’s a certain degree of ambivalence about changing. Contemplation involves weighing the benefits and costs of both their current situation and the change they may want to make. Some may procrastinate at this stage or insist on the perfect solution before they take action. The bottom line: Many never make it past the Contemplation stage because they equate the change with giving up more than what they might gain.
  3. Preparation—In this stage, a person intends to take action in the immediate future. They may begin experimenting with small changes. They have decided on action, and are planning the steps necessary to initiate change. At this stage, they often gather information about ways to change their behavior, compile motivational material, and write down their goals. Many find outside resources, such as coaches, support groups, or friends who can offer advice and encouragement. The bottom line: A person in the Preparation stage is getting ready to change.
  4. Action—In this stage, a person is taking the steps necessary to meet their goal. This might mean modifying behaviors, their environment, or relationships to overcome the situation that prompted their initial desire for change. The bottom line: In this stage, a person has put the plan they made in the Preparation stage into action.
  5. Maintenance—In this stage, a person is working to prevent relapse and maintain their new behavior. The person recognizes the benefits of successful change, but must still work to maintain the new behavior change and avoid returning to old behaviors. Confidence grows around the ability to continue the change. The bottom line: Those who successfully practice maintenance are able to remove obstacles to their success, avoid triggers, and continually reaffirm their commitment to change.

And then there’s relapse

In addition to these five stages there’s relapse, which is essentially the return from action or maintenance to an earlier stage. Along the way to permanent change, most of us experience a relapse or two where we return to old behaviors or abandon the new change. In fact, it’s common to have at least one relapse on the road to change, which means it’s a normal part of the change process.

What stage are you in?

When I coach someone around a desired change, it’s helpful to recognize the stage they’re in because the strategies and actions necessary to successfully progress through that stage and on to the next vary.

Think about a change you’ve made in the past. Can you identify how the stages of change played out in your life? What about a change you may want to make in the future. What stage are you currently in?