Building Better Habits: The Five Stages of Change
Habits are the small decisions we make everyday. Unlike other decisions, we tend to only think about them when we want to change. Most of the time, we cruise on auto-pilot which reinforces the strength of our habits and make them harder to break. Chances are if you've tried to form a new habit, you already know how difficult it is.
Let's say you want to change a behaviour. You decide that now is the time to start exercising more, eating healthier, scrolling less or backing yourself consistently. You pick one to focus on. For a few weeks you operate strong and see the benefits of the new behaviour, but somewhere along the lines you fall back into your old pattern. How did this happen?
According to science, people don't change their behaviour easily or decisively. It happens in stages. At each stage, there are different obstacles. So knowing which stage you're in gives you a higher chance for success. So what we'll do is learn about the stages of change and cover some practical strategies for building better habits.
Stages of Change Model
Developed in the late 1970s, the 'Stages of change' model evolved from a study of smokers. Researchers wanted to understand why some people could quit on their own, and why some needed more help. They concluded that people quit when they're ready to do so.
In the process, they created the 'Stages of change' model (also known as as the Transtheoretical model). It's built on the premise that change is five-stage cycle, with different levels of awareness and barriers at each. It looks like this:
When we break it down, the five stages are:
Pre-contemplation → No intention to change for the foreseeable future. In this stage, we're often unaware that a behaviour is problematic or might produce negative consequences. We might put too much emphasis on the cons of changing behaviour e.g. I'm just not like that, it's too difficult, it's too late to change, I don't have time, what's the point etc.
Contemplation → Intention to change within 6 months. In this stage, we might recognise that the behaviour isn't serving us. We may have considered the pros and cons of keeping or changing the behaviour but still feel ambivalent about it.
Preparation → Getting ready to change within 30 days. In this stage, we start taking small steps towards change. e.g. Planning the changes, identifying barriers, removing temptations etc. We also believe that changing the behaviour can lead to better outcomes.
Action → Engaging in change behaviour. In this stage, we've recently changed our behaviour and intend to continue with it. We may do this by modifying existing patterns or building new habits.
Maintenance → Engaged in behaviours for at least 6 months. In this stage, we've sustained the behaviour for a while and intend to keep it that way.
And that's the five stage model! Researchers note that at each stage, there's a chance we may relapse and fall into old patterns. So being familiar with the entire cycle is helpful whether you're a seasoned change expert or just beginning your journey. So how can we use the cycle to build better habits?
When you're trying to change a behaviour, it can be really difficult. Especially if it's something that's deeply engrained in your day-to-day practices. For example, if you fall into a pattern of working really late but want to exercise in the morning, it can be hard to wake up. So what can you do to move towards the change you're after?
Identify which part of the cycle you're in. Think about the behaviour you're trying to change. Which stage are you in? Is there a stage you struggle in? Have you reached a later stage and then relapsed? Knowing which stage you're in helps you set better practices.
Identify the barriers. Once you identify which stage you're struggling in, what are the barriers and temptations? What's making it difficult? Are there any patterns? Asking yourself these questions can help raise deeper answers behind why changing is difficult.
Design for success. Once you know the barriers and stage, you can design for success. Ask yourself: How can you remove friction for the behaviour? Let's say you keep falling short in preparation, can you make a more rigorous plan that's easier to start? Can you remove temptations or make them difficult to access? If you're falling short in action, can you make a commitment with someone around you? These are just a few ideas, and it depends on the behaviour itself.
Now let's jump into some effective strategies.
Here are a few proven strategies to help change behaviour.
Fresh start effect: Use the fresh start effect to your advantage. Researchers have found that we're more likely to achieve goals set at the start of a new time period. Whether that's a new week, month, year or holiday, the "fresh start" helps us put old behaviours behind us.
Temptation bundling: A great way to shift behaviour is to bundle temptations. Built off Premarck's Principle, the idea is that "more probable behaviours will reinforce less probable behaviours." In other words, if you pair something you enjoy with something you don't enjoy, you're more likely to do it. Let's say you hate writing emails, running on treadmills or folding clothes, can you pair it with your favourite music, podcasts or tv shows? This strategy grows stronger if we only do our temptations when doing the behaviour.
Cue-based planning: Linking new behaviours to a "cue" can be really effective for habit formation. Whether that's a daily routine, a specific time or a certain activity, this "cue" can help prompt us to do the behaviour. This can reduce friction and make it easier to act on the change. Let's say you want to build a better running habit. You set a lunch run for every second day at 12:30pm. If you do this consistently, your body will associate that time with running and everytime it hits 12:30pm, you'll be reminded!
Wrapping it up
Changing behaviour is a slow process. There are different stages and they each hold barriers. Knowing which one you fall into, or fall short in can help you design for success. Utilising effective strategies like the fresh start effect, temptation bundling and cue-based planning can help you optimise the process.