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Habit Change--Six Steps to Success

As every New Year approaches, many of us are doing the usual?thinking, "This year will be different. I'm going to change?(fill in the blanks)?my work habits, my attitudes. I'll lose those pounds; I'll make that difficult choice that's long overdue." We re-make these resolutions throughout the year.

But will really follow through until the goals are accomplished? Or will this new "determination" be like the others?lots of good intentions, plenty of wishes, but basically, life goes on as usual?

Research on personal change (Prochaska, Norcross, and Diclemente; "Changing for Good") has demonstrated that successful change comes in six well-defined stages. Perhaps the failure to recognize these stages has been responsible for your past frustrations and failures in following through on self improvements.

You see, each of these stages has a series of tasks that must be completed before you can progress to the next. You set yourself up for failure when you either try to accomplish changes you aren't ready for or when you stay so long on tasks you've mastered (such as understanding your problem) that you become stuck indefinitely.

Think about your past experiences as you read what happens in these six stages.

STAGE 1: PRECONTEMPLATION When you're at this stage, you aren't even admitting you have a problem. We've all seen unhealthy denial in others. We often have trouble seeing it in ourselves.

Writer G.K. Chesterton said, "It isn't that they can't see the solution. It's that they can't see the problem."

Precontemplators don't want to change themselves. They think others are to blame for their difficulties. Likely, others are experiencing the precontemplator's problem and may be applying pressure for him or her to change. The responses?denial and resistance.

Are you in this stage? Chances are, you are with at least one of the destructive and self-defeating behaviors you need to change.

STAGE 2: CONTEMPLATION When you move to the Contemplation stage, you acknowledge you have a problem, and you want to get unstuck. You begin to think seriously about solving your problem. You try to understand its causes, and you begin to investigate your options. At this point you have indefinite plans to take action within the next few months.

However, you can stay stuck in this stage for months or years. (Is this where you are now?) You know you need to change, and you intend to?someday?just as soon as?after?when the rush is over (when would that be?). You know your desire and your destination, but you're not quite ready to go.

Fear of failure can keep you searching for an easier, more dramatic, or more complete solution to your problem. The irony is, failure is guaranteed if you don't move on to the next stage.

STAGE 3: PREPARATION "If you fail to plan, you plan to fail."

You greatly reduce your success probability if you suddenly wake up one morning, say "This is the day," and dive headfirst into a change without realistically and specifically planning how you will make the change happen.

At Stage 3, you develop a detailed plan of action and you may announce your intentions publicly. Your awareness is high, and you may have already begun small behavioral changes. Before moving ahead, however, you need to know exactly how you will keep your awareness and commitment high throughout the struggles of the next stages.

STAGE 4: ACTION This stage is the one that requires the most commitment and energy. It's where you actually DO IT! You receive the most recognition and support during this stage, because others can see that you're working at it. You follow the plan you've made in Stage 3, make revisions as necessary, and "keep on keeping on" even when it's inconvenient or difficult.

Here's a caution: Action doesn't necessarily mean that lasting change has been made. It's an essential part of the process, but the failure to do what's necessary in the next stage, Maintenance, can sabotage the progress you've made so far.

STAGE 5: MAINTENANCE The maintenance stage is a long, ongoing process. From my experience, it's the most difficult. (How many times have I dieted, for example, only to gain the weight back?)

The Action stage must be followed by constant vigilance and a systematic plan for dealing with those temptations that can draw you back into the old, destructive pattern. It's hard work to consolidate the gains you've made during the first four stages and to prevent relapse.

Celebrate achieving your goals, but don't relax and tell yourself, "Whew! I'm glad that's over!" Develop a menu of mental and behavioral coping strategies that will take you through the times when your feet begin to slip. (More on that in the next article.)

STAGE 6: TERMINATION There is lively debate about whether this stage is possible when the behavior you've changed is an addictive habit. The ideal would be that you no longer feel tempted, and the habit is absolutely not a problem for you. Some say, however, that you must always maintain a life of vigilance.

I tend to agree. Some can progress to the point that they are not constantly tempted, nor do they think about it every day. However, I believe that once you've had a deeply ingrained habit or addiction, you are always more vulnerable than if you'd never had it. Keep a level of awareness, especially in times of stress. Studies show that in times of stress or conflict, people are most likely to slip.


Wouldn't it be nice if we smoothly progressed from one stage to the next? It's possible, but not probable. Most people have episodes of backsliding into Contemplation or even Precontemplation before trying again. In fact, studies show that New Year's resolutions are made, on average, five times before the changer moves all the way to Maintenance! (That's average. You don't have to do it that many times if you know how to move more effectively through these six stages.)

Don't give up! If you have a setback, don't stay there. Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and try again?this time with a revised and better plan.

Dr. Bev Smallwood is a psychologist who has worked with organizations across the globe for over 20 years. Her high-energy, high-content, high-involvement Magnetic Workplaces (r) programs provide dozens of practical strategies and skills that can be put to work immediately to:

  • build strong leaders who influence and develop others through serving;

  • energize, motivate, and retain team members;

  • successfully accomplish important organizational transitions; and

  • impress customers and build their loyalty.

  • Review a complete list of her programs available for your convention or corporate meeting at the website,

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