The 5 stages of change: where are you at?

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The 5 steps of change: where are you at?

Jack has been eating a lot of fast-food lately. Jack looks in the mirror and suddenly realizes he should lose some weight. Jack immediately adopts a healthy lifestyle and the very next day, he starts going to the gym 3 times a week. 3 months later, Jack has lost 30 pounds. Never again will he be tempted to eat bad foods. His live has changed forever. Well done Jack.

If this sounds like a typical weight loss story to you, you need to stop watching TV. Situations like this rarely ever occur. If change was that easy, everybody would do it.

A change in behavior is more than just one brief moment in time where you just switch the light on/off. It is a process over time, which involves slowly evolving steps towards the desired behavior and result. This is described in the “Transtheoretical Model of Change”.


The Transtheoretical Model was developed by Prochaska & DiClemente in 1983. It involves 5 stages: pre-contemplation, contemplation, preparation, action and maintenance.

  1. Pre-contemplation stage

    Jack is not ready for a change, as a matter of fact, he does not even give it any thought. He doesn’t realize his current lifestyle is unhealthy or harmful.

    “I don’t see why these guys go to the gym all the time. What’s wrong with having a belly? Rather be fat than only eat chicken and steamed vegetables all day long”

  2. Contemplation stage

    From time to time, Jack starts realizing his current situation is unhealthy and something needs to change. He starts weighing the positives and negatives.

    “These stairs are getting harder by the week and I’m out of breath playing with my children… Maybe I should join the swimming club, but that takes up so much of my spare time…”

  3. Preparation stage

    Finally, Jack has seen the light and decided it is time to take action. He puts himself in a position to do so by taking measures and will try to soon move on to the action stage.

    “All right let’s do this. I’m writing the swimming club an email right now and I’m going to buy some swimming trunks this afternoon after work!”

  4. Action stage

    An actual behavioral change has occurred.

    “I’m swimming twice a week. This is great! I feel better than ever.”

  5. Maintenance stage

The behavioral chance is sustained over time. No relapses have occurred and the change seems to be long-term.

“I’ve been going swimming for 6 months now. Soon I’ll move on to the advanced classes and I’ll be extending my membership.”

So… What about it?

While this is all very nice and theoretical, why does this apply to you?

We all have someone around us who we want to change a bit for the better: quit smoking, start exercising, adopt healthier eating habits, … And as much as we’d like to steer that person into the right direction, it won’t work by repeating the same thing over and over again.

A more successful approach would be to take the persons stage into account. Instead of saying “just stop smoking” or “just get to the gym”, try a different approach and get the person to the next stage. Have him/her climbing up the ladder slowly. Try to jump from stage 1 to 4 all at once and you are doomed to fail. Don’t try to take the stairs by taking 4 steps at once, or you will fall down and start off at the bottom again, bruised.

For people in the pre-contemplation stage, focus on making the person realize something needs to change and try convincing him/her of the potential benefits involved. This is more of a psychological step and therefore not really visible.

Someone in the contemplation stage needs just a little extra push to be convinced. Consider them as the “undecided voters” in an election. They are considering it, but they just have some doubts left. They really could go either way.

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People in the preparation phase need to be watched closely that they don’t fall back into the contemplation stage. Help them set deadlines and take specific measures they can’t back out off, for example encourage them to make an appointment with a specialist/trainer or schedule to go work out together.

Those in the action phase have done an outstanding job already, and you need to applaud these efforts and make them feel good. Change is by nature uncomfortable. Don’t state your skepticism, but celebrate what they have done. This will encourage them to carry on. Also don’t challenge them too much, you don’t want to propose impossible things. Just their current change of behavior is already challenging. We need to make sure this is a lasting change.

And lastly, those in the maintenance phase can be treated similarly to those in the action phase, with the difference that you can actually challenge them a little more. For example: Jack just finished the start to run program and can run a 5k. If you want, you can try and convince him to further explore his limits and challenge him to a 10k run.

So there you have it. Change is nothing but a flight of stairs, except you can help someone else climb it!

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