Habit Change: Stages of Change

This is the 2nd installment in my 4-part Habit Change series:

  1. An Introduction
  2. The Stages of Change (this post)
  3. The Habit Loop
  4. SMART Goals 

Are You Ready for Change?
“Pain pushes until the vision pulls you.” - Michael Beckwith

For years, when I made my New Year’s resolutions, I just stated the goals and that was that. I didn’t really plan the execution of the goals. Details or planning for obstacles never occurred to me. If my goal was to exercise more, then my thought process was, “I’ll start walking 5 days a week after work.” End of thought process. 

I believed that if I had enough willpower, I’d just accomplish the goal. When I didn’t accomplish the goal, I felt as if I’d failed.

I guess I did fail, but I wasn’t a failure. I needed a better understanding of the process of change.

Depending on who and what you read, there are 5 or 6 stages of change. The 6th stage is listed as optional, but most of us have experienced it. It’s so common that many experts consider it an official stage of change. 

Stage 1: Precontemplation  

We have no thought of changing, now or later.

Stage 2: Contemplation

We’re considering change. This stage can be full of ambivalence. “I want to change, BUT…”

Stage 3: Preparation

We’re getting ready to change. We gather information, check out the local gym, etc.

Stage 4: Action

This is the stage of execution. It’s here that we practice the actual steps towards our goal.

Stage 5: Maintenance

We’re maintaining the desired goal. Maintenance can lead to termination or graduation.

Stage 6: Relapse (optional)

This doesn’t mean going all the way back to the beginning, but it can.

This may sound like a lot. It may sound inaccurate. And my guess is you are already doing this in your everyday life, just not related to your health goals.

Let’s say you have a goal of eating a gluten-free diet. The stages of change might look something like this:

  • Gluten is delicious. You eat lots of it because it’s convenient and inexpensive, but it makes you feel really bloated. You ignore the symptoms and keep eating it. (Precontemplation)
  • You read an article that opens your eyes to the damage gluten could be doing to your gut. You ignore the information, convincing yourself it’s not that bad. (Precontemplation)
  • Your sister tells you she’s been having digestive issues and removing gluten from her diet has really helped her. You begin to consider removing gluten from your diet. (Contemplation)
  • But gluten is really tasty. It’s hard to give up. You decide it isn’t what’s causing the bloating. (Precontemplation)
  • You begin to have headaches, abdominal pain, and your mood has changed. While trying to determine the causes of these symptoms, your doctor suggests you try a gluten-free diet. This is the 3rd or 4th time you’ve heard that gluten can affect your health and decide it’s time to give it a try. (Contemplation)
  • Now you’re actively searching for what to eat if you “go all in” and adopt a gluten-free diet. You’ve found some recipes that sound pretty good. You clean out your pantry and go grocery shopping. (Preparation)
  • Now you’re eating gluten-free. It’s going pretty well. (Action)
  • Your weekly staff meeting is today and the obligatory pizza is delivered. It smells amazing and you have four pieces, plus some bread sticks, because after all, they’re included. You expect to feel bloated and you do. (Relapse)
  • At dinner you get back on track with a gluten-free meal. (Action)
  • OR you eat gluten at dinner because you’ve already ruined your diet for the day, but you know you’ll get back on track tomorrow. (Relapse)
  • OR you throw in the towel because avoiding gluten can be really difficult and you just really don’t want to do it. (Precontemplation)
  • OR you decide a 100% gluten-free diet is not a realistic goal for you right now. You decide you will eat it on the weekends, but not during the week. Re-evaluating our goals is very important. (Contemplation)
  • You decide to cut out gluten again. (Action)
  • You already have the groceries in the house so it’s easy to get back on track. (Action)
  • This time you’re able to go weeks without gluten, but the holidays arrive and you decide to indulge. (Relapse)
  • After the holidays have passed, you’re strict about your food choices. Although the food was great, you feel more sluggish and moodier than you did before the holidays. (Action)
  • You maintain this new lifestyle for several months. (Maintenance)
  • Eating gluten-free has become a regular part of your life and no longer tempts you. The benefits far outweigh the splurge of eating gluten so you stick to it because you feel fantastic. You’re now choosing a gluten-free lifestyle with ease. (Termination)

(If you’re really considering going gluten-free, you can listen to Chris Kresser’s interview of Dr. Alessio Fasano and the role gluten plays in leaky gut. Thanks to Dr. Fasano and his discovery of zonulin, we now know gluten can be detrimental, at least to some degree, to most of us.)

Again…you’re likely moving through this process in other areas of your life. Depending on the situation, you can move through the process quickly or slowly.

Have you ever experienced the following?

  • Helped your child decide whether or not they will pursue college or another path
  • Made the decision to leave one job for another
  • Found a nursing home for a loved one
  • Bought a new car, or house, or other large purchase
  • Decided to get out of an abusive relationship
  • Decided to quit smoking

If you’ve lived through any of these scenarios, or something similar, you’ve worked this process. When we do, we have success. When we set a goal and think willpower alone will see us through, we’re usually disappointed and that feeling of failure creeps in.

Willpower alone will work for some. Muscling through seems to be the expected approach for change and goal-setting and social media can often make change look easy.

For most of us, there’s a process and a recycling back to one or more of the stages. It’s entirely possible for a person to fail at one stage or another, only to make a second, or third, or fourth attempt before succeeding. 

Back in the fall, Jill introduced me to the work of Michael Beckwith. His quote, “Pain pushes until the vision pulls you” has become one of my all-time favorites.

The pain of symptoms, or the loss of quality of life, can push us to make changes. We know we need to change and the pain—and fear—pushes us to do so.

Once we achieve some success and experience the benefits of accomplishing our goals, the vision of:

  • Fewer symptoms
  • More energy
  • A brand new outlook and perspective
  • Feelings of accomplishment
  • A new life

…pulls us forward. Our motivation becomes stronger and more consistent. We’re no longer being pushed by the pain, we desire the vision, and we’re being pulled…willingly…towards it.

We no longer have to change, we want to change.

If you haven’t been able to stick to your resolutions…

  • You’re likely experiencing the normal recycling and spiraling through the stages of change.
  • I repeat…you’re not a failure. 

In every unsuccessful attempt at change, there’s a lesson. And if you’re learning, you’re not failing.

We now understand our overall health can influence our decision making. And we understand that it’s a process.

Part 3 of this Habit Change series will be about The Habit Loop. It’s a neurological loop that drives our choices unless we’re paying attention. Both good and bad habits are driven by this evolutionarily adopted thought system.

Using The Habit Loop to develop good habits will make all the difference in the world. Stay tuned!

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