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Understanding What It Takes To Change

Most people will admit they don’t like change.  Some embrace trying new things, but when we are faced with doing something differently, giving up a beloved habit, stepping into the unknown…

most say, “no thanks”…or “not yet.”

Do I have To Pick?

There are so many things we need to change with in a life time:

  • attitude
  • eating habits
  • location
  • job
  • smoking or drinking habits
  • perspective

Not Just Willpower

One thing that is often misunderstood about change is that it is merely based on will power.  We are especially keen on this idea when we want someone else to change or “just stop”.  We can want to stop a habit or way of being, but we might also want to develop a part of our personality – the structure of who we are and how we interpret and interact with the world around us.

We are also fond of the willpower perspective when we do not want to endure some of the work that change requires.

There are a few theories out there on change that expand from willpower…and give us a better picture of what change looks like.  One of my favorites recognizes that there are stages to change…that change is not “just do it” or “stop” or “final”.  Overall, change is a process that includes six stages.



Someone in this stage is not ready to make any moves.  Everything will stay the same as it is now.  The time table for this stage is “maybe in the next six months or… never”.  Someone in this stage might:

  • be defensive.
  • in denial (there is no problem here!).
  • avoid talking or thinking about what needs to change.

The thinking strategy here is to overestimate the challenge of changing and underestimate the benefits.  In this stage, we are often not aware we are thinking in such a calculated manner.  Sadly, we can stay in the precontemplation stage for yearsall the while doing damage to our bodies, relationships, self-esteem or opportunities for life experiences.


In this stage, someone intends to change in the near future, within the next six months.  I am not ready to change, but I sure am thinking about it.

There is a focus on what the change requires, and while there is thought given to the benefits of a change, the “cons” take center stage.  This makes sense, though.  For real change, it is likely we are assessing what we have to give up in the process.  We are trading the known for the unknown, the concrete for the abstract – like trading in a cigarette for lower blood pressure.  One little cigarette doesn’t seem that big of a deal when I contemplate surviving cravings, free hands, no nicotine pick-me up, withdrawal.

A result of contemplation…really thinking over the change is ambivalence – strong feelings on both sides of what the change means.  To stay in the marriage, to not stay.  To leave my job, to stay.

Another result is procrastination, chronic thinking and convincing thinking.  (e.g. I will change _______ after this stressful time in my life.  Right now I am pretty sure I can handle things as they are.  I am trying, things really aren’t that bad.)

In contemplation, I might have tried to tell myself that the small changes are equivalent to the big change-

  • Fewer cigarettes is similar to stopping.
  • My spouse and I are not fighting as much, so we are doing better
  • Walking to lose weight but not altering my diet.
  • I had good week at work, I guess I don’t need to think about changing jobs.

While small changes are good, they are not necessarily getting you where you want to be.  The strain of not changing will remain.


In this stage, I am going to take action in the immediate future.

I might have chosen a date to start my diet or stop biting my nails.  I might have researched programs I want to follow, or found a therapist I want to work with on a certain personal issue.  If I am in this stage, I probably have a plan for action.


I am ready to change, the time frame for this stage is now.

I have made a few modifications in my life to help get me closer to what I need to change.  I am more ready than I was when I was thinking and thinking.

One way to measure change in the action stage is actual improvement.  Without a complete change, I might be smoking less, but my blood pressure still might be really high or I might be walking, but may not have lost any weight.



In this stage, I am working to prevent going back to my old ways.  A recovering addict might be attending meetings and regularly talking to a sponsor.  I am aware of what triggers me to return to my habit (e.g. stress, experiences that bring up negative emotions like loneliness or anger).  By reaching the maintenance stage, I am more likely to be motivated by my success and less tempted to relapse as I grow in confidence and begin to experience the “pros” of change.

The thing about true change is that is calls for long-term effort to maintain progress.  This is what can be hard or confusing, but is an important part of contemplation and preparation stages…knowing what the change requires of you.  A great metaphor is seeing change like a marathon.

Being ready for change and continued effort makes a big difference in success.  It would be extremely difficult to run a marathon without training or being knowledgable about what is required to make it through the full task.


Sometimes we never get here.  In this stage, there is no temptation, no need for maintenance – no matter the situation or emotional condition.  Termination can be an ideal goal, but there are often times when we are not cured or temptation-free.

Some might stay in the Maintenance phase, continually or periodically having to manage temptation or work through a craving.  I might also fluctuate between maintenance and termination depending on my life situation and what is challenging me.

Things To Consider

No matter what you are trying to change – a habit, your role in a relationship, your attitude about something that has been bothering you, your perspective on a situation or a person, it is important to understand change.  It can take the pressure off feeling like you have to do something now, and can allow for some space to consider where you stand.  Allow change to be a process that acknowledges your place along the continuum.




Prochaska, J. O. (1999).  How do people change and how can we change to help many more people. In M. A. Hubble & B. L. Duncan (Eds).  The heart and soul of change: What works in therapy. (pp. 227-255). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
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One Comment

  1. This was completely necessary for me to read. To understand that change is an ongoing process and not something to rush through to see a result. Always appreciative of the way you take things apart and explain in an easy to read format.


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