Motivation 101: The Stages of Change

by | Mar 26, 2019

Have you ever noticed that motivation levels tend to come and go in waves? One day you’re feeling ready to tackle the world… and then suddenly a few days later you are feeling as though you’ll never be able to reach your goals? If so, you are definitely not alone in these thoughts.

Motivation is not always black and white. In fact, it’s completely common for motivation levels to fluctuate while working on intentional behavior changes. We often think of these types of changes as quick and decisive–a singular action or event. But in reality, making significant behavior changes is more of a process that continues to evolve over time until you feel completely confident maintaining those changes for good.

This theory is often summed up using The Transtheoretical Model, more commonly known as the “stages of change.” Thinking of making a change in the next few months and wondering which stage of change you are currently in? Take a look at these summaries of the stages below — plus a few suggested actions to keep yourself moving forward into the next stage.

Precontemplation

What is it? This is the earliest stage, and one that is characterized by a lack of interest in change–there is usually no plan or intention to begin modifying behaviors just yet. This phase is often described using the “Four R’s”: reluctance, rebellion, resignation, and rationalization.    

What can I do if I’m in this stage? Ask yourself things like “What would be different about my life if I decided to make this change?” and “How does this behavior play into my health goals?”

Contemplation

What is it? You’ve recognized a problem and have begun to consider the possibility of making a change within the next few months, but you likely still feel conflicted about what you might have to give up in order to make that change. This stage is highly characterized by ambivalence and can last as briefly as a day, or as long as a lifetime.

What can I do if I’m in this stage? Take a close, hard look at the pros and cons of this behavior. Do the long-term benefits associated with changing this behavior outweigh the short-term costs that will be required to change it?

Preparation

What is it? You’ve decided that this is a behavior worth changing, and you intend to begin doing so within the next month. This stage typically involves making a commitment to yourself and building up your confidence around making those changes. Some might argue that this is the most important stage of change, as it is an opportunity to prepare yourself for success.

What can I do if I’m in this stage? Visualize what your life will look like after you begin making this change. Create an action plan and take small steps to gather all of the resources you will need. Think about the specific tools and strategies you can rely on to make this change.

Action

What is it? You’ve committed time and energy and you are now putting your plan into action. Although a permanent habit might not yet have been fully formed, you’ve been actively practicing this new behavior. This stage could be characterized by strong willpower.  

What can I do if I’m in this stage? First things first, stop and congratulate yourself for making it this far! You’ve taken a big step and this is a great opportunity to reflect on your successes, revisit your commitment to this change, and reinforce the positive new behavior you’ve been practicing. Lastly, prepare yourself for the possibility that you might encounter a roadblock soon.

Maintenance

What is it? You’ve remained committed to this behavior change for six months or more now, and you have started to feel the effects of making a significant change. You’re maintaining this new behavior with less effort than before and feeling in control of your ability to avoid temptations.  

What can I do if I’m in this stage? Take some time to appreciate the new habit that you have formed for yourself and the value that it has added to your life. Consider how you’ll maintain this habit even in high-risk situations, and what steps you might take in the event that you should relapse away from this new behavior at some point in the future.

Relapse

What is it? As scary as it might sound, relapses are a normal part of the process and are much more common than you might initially think. We all slip and stumble from time to time. But the goods news is that one relapse does not have to set you all the way back to the first stage of precontemplation. When it comes to different habits and behaviors, you might find yourself entering or exiting the change process at any stage in the model.

What can I do if I’m in this stage? Remind yourself that this is completely normal and even to be expected from time to time. Try to view this experience as a learning opportunity, rather than a failure. Ask yourself, “what triggered this relapse?” Next, take some time to revisit the plans you made while in the preparation stage. Perhaps there is a different tool or technique that could help you to better prevent a relapse in the future. But most importantly, don’t allow your confidence levels or your commitment to this change to become compromised. Reclaim your motivation and get started again!

 

Author: Cecilia Snyder, MS, RD