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Why is Change so Hard? The Five Stages of Change and How to Get the Most out of Your Change Goals

Written by: Shamika Scott



Reaching the end of the year is stressful. For some, it’s the time to begin thinking about how you’re going to reinvent yourself and for others it’s the beginning of an emotional slump. Not only is it getting colder and darker, but we also feel the added societal pressure to make goals, stick to them and show everyone how resilient we are. But does feeling pressured to create goals and stick to them truly lead to change? The short answer for most, is no. When you try to accomplish change that you are not ready for, you are setting yourself up for failure. Change is a process that isn’t linear and takes time. Most of us wonder why change is so hard. We question ourselves and our ability to evolve. We often hear people saying,

“Shouldn’t it be easy?”

“I should just be able to say I’m going to make a change and do it.”

“Why can’t I take control of my life and take the next step?”

“Why do I never finish”?

Psychologists Prochaska and DiClemente created the Transtheoretical Model, also known as the stages of change model, to answer some of these questions. They found that when individuals engaged in behavioural change, there were five stages that they cycled through until reaching their desired change outcome. Let’s talk about the different stages, goals you should consider for each stage and the techniques you can use to keep moving forward with your change goal.

Stage 1: Precontemplation

In this stage, people often have no intention to make a change within the next six months. Individuals in this stage often do not see any behaviours or habits as an issue and often place a lot of emphasis on the drawbacks of making a change.

Goals for this stage: Evaluate your current behaviours and think about what is helpful or unhelpful.


Techniques to progress to Contemplation: Think about your perceptions around implementing change and explain your understanding of why change could be important/will make a positive difference in your life.

Stage 2: Contemplation


In this stage, individuals start to think about making a change in the foreseeable future (within the next 6 months). People in this stage start to consider the positives and negatives of implementing a change with equal emphasis.


Goals for this stage: Evaluate the pros and cons of making the change and identify outcome expectations.


Techniques to progress to Preparation:Work through ambivalent feelings about implementing the change, normalize ambivalence, shift focus from intrinsic to extrinsic motivators and explore your values in relation to the change you want to make.


Stage 3: Preparation


In this stage, people are prepared to implement their change goal within the next 30 days. Positive beliefs about the change goal begin to set in and people begin to take small steps towards this goal.


Goals for this stage: List the skills needed to implement the change, begin to start making small initial steps


Techniques to progress to Action: Develop and set change goals, develop a change plan (think about multiple ways you could implement this change to create a ‘change menu’), explore and lower barriers to action, enlist social support

Stage 4: Action


In this stage, people have recently made changes inline with their change goal (within the last 6 months) and intend to keep progressing forward with this new change.


Goals for this stage: Implement the plan, revisit and revise plan as needed, rewarded successes, list long-term benefits


Techniques to progress to Maintenance: Identify factors that could cause you to move back to into earlier stages, identify new behaviours that reinforce change


Stage 5: Maintenance


In this stage, the change has been sustained for more than 6 months and people intend to integrate this change into their everyday lives.


Goals for this stage: Develop coping strategies, maintain behaviours across multiple situations, reinforce internal rewards.


Techniques to maintain this stage:Make a plan for how you would reenter the cycle if there is a setback, practice self-compassion and understanding of your current needs, reevaluate and update your goals and change plan as needed.


So, why does it feel so hard to make changes in our lives and where do people get stuck? Typically, the hardest part about making a change is getting started. With our understanding of the stages of change, it has been shown that people normally get stuck between preparation and action. This happens when people misjudge their readiness for change (often seen at the end/beginning of a New Year when people are feeling pressured to create goals and stick to new habits). Self-change attempts often fail and are largely a result of the optimism bias. This bias

It has been shown that change doesn’t stick for a few reasons 1) people overestimate the amount of change they can make 2) people overestimate how quickly they can make changes and 3) people believe that making a change will improve their lives more than is feasible.

What should your key takeaways be? Practice self-compassion and really think about your reasons for change. Is it because you genuinely want to change or are there external forces impacting your decision? Consider your deepest values (what is most important to you) and build out your goals from there. Goals that are aligned with our values are far more likely to stick. Remember, change takes time, it doesn't happen overnight. According to researchers, even those who are ultimately successful at self-change must make the attempt five or six times on average before succeeding. If you want to engage in successful change that sticks, it is important for you to understand what stage you are in, be open to moving through the stages multiple times and engaging in the right techniques depending on which stage you are in.

Sometimes working through these stages and implementing a change on our own is just not possible. If you or someone you know is struggling to make a change and require more support and guidance around these steps, reaching out to a therapist can help. No matter what stage you are in, consider booking a free consultation with one of our talented therapists today.




References


Enhancing Motivation for Change in Substance Use Disorder Treatment (2019). Rockville (MD): Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 35. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK571071/


Polivy, J., & Herman, C. P. (2002). If at first you don't succeed: False hopes of self-change. American Psychologist, 57(9), 677–689. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.57.9.677

Prochaska, J. O., Norcross, J. C., & DiClemente, C. C. (2013). Applying the stages of change. Psychologists’ Desk Reference, 177–181. https://doi.org/10.1093/med:psych/9780199845491.003.0034


Raihan, N., & Cogburn, M. (2023). Stages of Change Theory. In StatPearls. StatPearls Publishing.

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