How to use the 5 stages of change to break your bad habits

If this year’s goal is to start a new habit—or break a bad one—you’ve probably already given up on that task.

And it makes sense: habits are hard to form, and every time you make a mistake, it feels like a personal failure.

You’re also bracing yourself for failure, says Katherine Morgan Schafler, psychotherapist and author of The Perfectionist’s Guide to Losing Control.

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

While this framework makes it easier to bring about change in the short term, it also makes it more difficult to sustain change over the long term.

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

Instead of seeing change as a sweeping movement, Schafler suggests using the five-step model of change developed by researchers James Prochaska and Carlo DiClemente.

This “unblocking” can help those who want to form a habit or break it but are having trouble with it.

1. Preview

You don’t know at this point that you want to change something and you don’t see this happening in the foreseeable future either. You are unaware of how your actions are affecting your life and are more focused on “gaining experience”.

If you’re already looking to make a change, you may have already passed the stage.

2. Contemplation

This is where you start having repetitive thoughts about your experiences and what is and isn’t working for you. You may notice advantages and disadvantages of certain habits. They don’t really feel the call to action yet.

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Most people make the dysfunctional assumption that change is a one-step process.

Katherine Morgan Schafler

3. Preparation

At this stage you have decided that you want to change and you are gathering material and information to help you facilitate that change.

For example, if you want to start running, you might go out and get running shoes fitted. You could call a friend who has been running regularly 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 is the most visible.

“If you’ve made it to this stage, it takes a hell of a lot of mental energy, time, reflection, work, and emotional risk,” writes Schafler. “No matter what happens next, you have a lot to be proud of.”

5. Maintenance

This stage is “crucial and often overlooked,” she writes. Change is just the beginning of the journey. Now you have to keep up the habit.

Know that you will fall behind. You could run three times a week for a month and then completely lose motivation for the next month. That’s okay, writes Schafler. Remind yourself that regression is not failure and surround yourself with a support system that encourages you to keep going when you make a mistake.


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