Have something in your life that needs to change but don’t know where to begin? If so, then you’re not alone! Whether it’s trying to quit smoking, quit another addiction like drugs or alcohol, leave an unhealthy relationship, lose weight, become more organized, or have better study habits, it can be overwhelming to know where to begin.
The first step to making a change is to assess your readiness to change. Addictions researchers Diclemente and Prochaska (1994) defined six stages of change in their Transtheoretical Model of Change based on over twenty years of working with individuals who were struggling to give up bad habits like overeating and alcohol addiction. Although this model is frequently used with addictions, it can be applied to any change that a person may need to make.
The first step in this model is called the “pre-contemplation stage”. Chances are that if you are actively looking to make a change, you have moved past this stage already. In this stage, a person may be aware that they are engaged in a bad habit, but they have no plans to change. In fact, they may not even admit that they are doing anything wrong. If others in their life try to point out that something needs to change, a person in the pre-contemplation stage may say their loved ones are ‘blowing things out of proportion” or find other ways to justify continuing the bad habit. This person may be full of excuses for their behavior and may attempt to rationalize their behavior.
The second stage of change is the “contemplation” stage. You might be in this stage if you are aware that something in your life needs to change but don’t know where to begin. If you have stopped making excuses for your bad habit and have admitted something needs to change, then congratulations! It is often said that the first step of making a change is admitting that you have a problem. Someone in the contemplation stage is doing just that – they have stopped making excuses and are no longer in denial and are willing to consider making a change. Some people find it helpful to make a list of pros and cons for continuing the behavior. The “pros” are your reasons for continuing the behavior and the “cons” are the negative consequences of your behavior. For example, if drinking is the bad habit that needs to change, a “pro” to continuing drinking might be “I like the way it makes me feel” or “it helps social situations be less awkward”. A “con” might be how much money you spend on alcohol in a month, any legal issues resulting from your drinking, health issues related to drinking, or marital/family stress caused by your drinking. Sometimes when a person can see the consequences written down like this, it makes it clearer to the individual that a change needs to happen.
If you have reached a decision that a change must be made, then you are in the “preparation” stage of change. Congratulations! It is often said that the first step of making a change is admitting that you have a problem. At this point a person has usually stopped making excuses for their bad habit. During this stage, a person is still engaging in their bad habit but is preparing to stop. If your goal is weight loss, this is when you might sign up for a gym membership and buy workout clothes, and look up healthy recipes and begin making a shopping list. At this stage you are mentally preparing yourself for the changes to come but have not begun to initiate the changes yet.
The fourth stage is the “action” stage. This may be the day you check into an alcohol or drug rehab facility, or put on a nicotine patch and throw away your cigarettes. This may be the first day you walk into the gym that you signed up for.
Action requires daily, and sometimes hourly, commitments to not fall back into your bad habit. It’s not enough to walk into that gym on the first day. You have to keep going back. Action requires conscious choices to do differently than you were doing before. Instead of picking up the usual junk food at the grocery store, you have to make a conscious decision to walk past the snack cakes and choose something healthier to put in your shopping cart. When you stop to pay for your gas, you have to choose not to go inside and buy a new pack of cigarettes. This is where it gets hard! Change doesn’t happen overnight and expecting it to will cause disappointment.
The fifth stage is called the “maintenance” stage. After about six months of consistent action on your part to change a bad habit, you may notice that it isn’t as hard to do as it was in the beginning. If so, you may be in the maintenance stage. You are now able to resist falling back into your bad habit with minimal effort, and the new and healthier habits are in place.
The sixth stage is called “termination” and is considered to be reached when a person is able to face temptation without relapsing back into old habits, and the positive changes have become a way of life. This stage is usually marked with a new self-confidence and overall positive outlook on life.
Now that you have assessed your readiness for change, here are some final tips to help you along the way:
- Remember that change is a process that takes time. It doesn’t happen overnight.
- Don’t give up when it gets tough. Bad habits are hard to break.
- Cut yourself some slack! You will have setbacks along the way. If you have a “cheat” meal or find yourself engaging in the habit you are trying to break, this doesn’t mean you should give up and stop trying.
- Learn from any setbacks you encounter on the way. Instead of looking at setbacks as failures, look at them as learning opportunities that will help you know what to avoid in the future.
- Enlist help along the way. Let your friends and family know what you’re doing. They can assist by not tempting you to continue in the bad habit you are trying to break and can offer support and encouragement.
- Set small milestones that are easier to achieve than big ones and celebrate the milestones.
- Don’t just focus on stopping a bad behavior – you have to learn new and more positive behaviors to replace the one you are trying to stop.
- Keep a journal of your progress. When things get tough, look back over this and see the progress you have made.