Successfully Making Behaviour Changes – it’s not only what you do, but when you do it

by Richard Adams in Education

Changing habits or behaviours can be very challenging. Even if we know what we should do, it’s another thing all together to make the necessary changes in our life to do it. Quitting smoking, reducing alcohol consumption, reducing weight or improving fitness are common things that many people want to accomplish. Are there proven strategies out there that can be adopted to improve your chances of success to make that change that you know you want to (or should) do? The good news is yes, there are. They’re not ‘silver bullets’, or short cuts, or quick fixes. But there is evidence out there to help you achieve your goals, provided you take a thoughtful and determined approach.

In the 1980s, a group of psychologists set out to understand why some people accomplished self-directed change, where others failed. They studies the stories of smokers who successfully quit. And what they found was that those that succeeded progressed through distinct stages of change, and crucially they report that they did different things depending of the stage they were at.

What is now known as the ‘Stages of Change’ model, divides the change process up into 6 steps:

Pre-contemplation: “I don’t acknowledge I have a problem that I need to solve”
Contemplation: “I have a problem, but don’t really understand how to go about solving it”.
Preparation: “I’ve decided to move to solve the problem. I need to make a plan”.
Action: “I’m in the process of solving my problem.”
Maintenance: “I’ve reached my goal, and now I need to work to stay there”.
Termination: “Maintaining my goal no longer requires conscious effort”.

At each step, there are things you can do that are more or less helpful. For example, in the pre-contemplation and contemplation stages, it’s beneficial to spend time raising your consciousness of the problem. In the case of smoking that might mean seeking out health data, or addressing a belief “that it won’t happen to me”. At this stage, introducing incentives, or making public proclamations about quitting smoking would be unhelpful or counterproductive – these techniques fit in the preparation and action stages.

A common mistake is moving into the action step too quickly – until you are truly committed to make a change, you’re better spending your energy securing the necessary commitment than embarking on a journey that’s likely to fail. It’s also a mistake to push your friend or relative to take action before they’re ready. In pre-contemplation and contemplation stages, listening and demonstrating you care or are concerned is more effective than cajoling.

Do you have any changes that you’re working on? Perhaps you’ve reached the termination stage with your exercise – it’s a regular habit, but are at an earlier stage with your nutrition, or with managing stress levels at work. Understanding that it’s not only what you do, but when on your change journey you do it, can be a valuable insight.

To learn more about the Stages of Change model, refer to the book Changing for Good by James Prochaska et al.