Psychology and Relationships

How to use the 5 stages of change to break your bad habits, from the author of 'The Perfectionist's Guide to Losing Control'


If you resolved to form a new habit — or break a bad one — this year, it's likely you've already abandoned the task. 

And it makes sense: habit-forming is hard and every time you slip up it feels like a personal failure. 

You're also setting yourself up for failure, says Katherine Morgan Schafler, a psychotherapist and author of "The Perfectionist's Guide to Losing Control." 

"Most people operate under the dysfunctional assumption that change is a one-step process that is achieved by stopping something or starting something," she writes in her book.

While this framing makes it easier to enact change in the short term, it also makes sustaining change harder in the long term.  

One way to give a new habit more staying power is to treat change like a multi-step process, Schafler says. 

Instead of seeing change as one, sweeping motion, Schafler suggests using the five-stage model of change developed by researchers James Prochaska and Carlo DiClemente.

This "unlock" can help those who want to form or stop a habit, but are having trouble doing so. 

The five-stage model of change

1. Precontemplation 

At this point, you don't know you want to make a change and don't see yourself doing so in the foreseeable future. You're unaware of how your actions are impacting your life and are more concentrated on "collecting experiences." 

If you're already looking to make a change, you might have already passed the stage.

2. Contemplation 

Here, you start having repeating thoughts about your experiences and what's working for you and what isn't. You might be noticing pros and cons about specific habits. You aren't really feeling the call to action, yet. 

Most people operate under the dysfunctional assumption that change is a one-step process.
Katherine Morgan Schafler

3. Preparation 

By this stage you've decided you want to change and you're gathering material and information to help you facilitate that change. 

For example, if you want to start running, you might go out and get fitted for running shoes. You could call up a friend who has run consistently for a few years and ask how they got started. 

4. Action 

This marks the beginning of behavioral changes and is probably the stage you associate with change because it's the most visible. 

"If you've made it all the way to this stage, it takes a whole hell of a lot of mental energy, time, reflection, work, and emotional risk," Schafler writes. "No matter what happens next, you have much to be proud of." 

5. Maintenance 

This stage is "crucial and often overlooked" she writes. Making the change is only the beginning of the journey. Now you have to sustain the habit. 

Know that you will regress. You might run three times a week for a month then totally lose motivation for the next month. That's okay, Schafler writes. Remind yourself that regression is not failure and surround yourself with a support system who encourages you to keep going when you slip up.  

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