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The Five Stages of Change

If you are anything like me, you may be a little impulsive when it comes to change.

I’ll be the first to admit that I will read about a new workout trend or challenge, and I jump on it. If I set a new goal, I’m out there looking for instantaneous results. My conscious brain knows most goals take time, but the sticky floors I find myself standing in is one of impatience.

Here is what you may not know. Change is not a one-step process.

Most people operate under the assumption that if you want to change, you just do it. For example, if you want to work out, just go work out. If you want to eat healthier or quit drinking, you just start eating healthier and quit drinking.

Change is more complex than that.

In the 1970s, Dr. James Prochaska and Dr. Carlo DiClemente created a five-stage model of change after studying what made some smokers successful in the quest to quit, while others struggled.

What I find fascinating about this five-stage model is that the act of starting a new habit and quitting an old one is actually the fourth stage of change. It doesn’t start with the act of starting or stopping the habit.

This model illustrates that just thinking about the change without doing anything is a stage of change! Yes! You, sitting there on the couch, thinking about how you want to work out or quit drinking or smoking is a stage of change.

You see, change is a process and it doesn’t start with the action.

The first stage is PRECONTEMPLATION. This is the stage where you are not thinking about the change. You are just out there living your life and collecting experiences. (You have to collect experiences, both good and bad, for your brain to even start to formulate what it wants more of, and what it wants less of!)

The second stage is CONTEMPLATION. This is the stage when you start to get that itch. Those feelings or thoughts that just won’t go away. Those are coming from all the experiences you were gathering in phase 1. This is when you start thinking about what it is you want to change, how, when and why. Maybe you have gotten tired of your jeans being a little too snug every time you try to button them up. You are feeling a bit frustrated and down on yourself.

Stage three is PREPARATION. This is the stage where you have made the decision that you want to change and you start prepping! Maybe you start planning out that you need to wake up thirty minutes earlier to get a workout in, or maybe you buy yourself some new running shoes. This is when you may also enlist a friend as an accountability partner that is going to meet you at the gym in the mornings. In this stage, you are doing all the things you think you need to do to create change.

ACTION is stage four, and this is the stage that most people THINK change starts with. By now, you though, have seen there has been a lot of work going into the change before you take action. You have spent time thinking about the change, prepping for the change, and planning how you can accomplish the change. You may be nervous because it's a huge change for you. The amount of mental energy you have put into the change is something to be proud of, because that, my friend, IS work. This is when you actually start the physical change. You get yourself to the gym, you get rid of the unhealthy foods in your house, and you chew a piece of gum instead of going for a smoke. This is doing all the work you have been planning for!

And the final stage? MAINTENANCE. Have you ever heard:

“Quitting is easy, I’ve done it a thousand times?”

It is one of my favorite sayings when it comes to habits. Because the start of something is much easier than the maintaining of something. This is when you are solidifying the change you want to make.

What I want you to realize, and I hope motivates you, is that change is not a linear process.

Very rarely do you declare a change, and have immediate sustained success. There are ups and downs, peaks and valleys. Emergencies pop up that throw your workout plan off course for a month. You get a piece of stressful news and you reach for the smoke. I don’t want you to be discouraged. I want you to just pause here, and take a moment to look back. Look at all the work you have done. You have made it through three stages of change already. You aren’t going back to square one. This is not the moment to throw your change into the trash and declare that it's too hard. You will fail. You will mess up. You will regress. This is only natural. This is life.

Let's talk about habits! You know me, I love a good habit and will strategize all day long on how to make that habit stick. But we often don’t talk about the stages of change and habits. Which, in my opinion, is doing us a disservice. Most of the literature surrounding habits is all about solidifying the habit, which is stage 5 of the change model. It doesn’t acknowledge all the work you put in before reaching stage four, the action phase. But each phase requires a great deal of time and energy and it is important to recognize that.

I also want you to recognize that you can spend days, months, and even years in any of these stages. You may also regress, moving from the maintenance phase, back into the contemplation phase.

Again, change is not necessarily linear. You need to recognize that change doesn’t happen overnight. Oh ya’ll - my stickiest of floors. I’m 100% guilty of working out for a week and expecting a six-pack. And I’m a fitness professional! We live in a world where we crave instant results, where everyone is told to move with pace and urgency. Know this one thing: The amount of time you spend in each phase of change is not wasted. It is a part of your process. It is a part of your growth. It is a part of your story.

I’m not saying it's OK to just allow yourself to go from taking action and maintenance to contemplation because you slip up. Now that we understand the model of change, we can use the power of habits to stay in phase 4, ACTION, and phase 5, MAINTENANCE.

Build in “emergency moments.” These are moments in time when if you miss your goal, you don’t regress or give up. Take working out for example. If you have a goal to work out 5 days a week for 30 minutes each day, you may allow yourself one emergency day. This is a day you can use if you hit snooze on your alarm and wake up late, or maybe you have a kid get sick and you’ve been up all night and you feel just too tired to even go for a walk. This is when you call in that “emergency” that gives you permission to have a miss, without giving up on your goal - without starting over.

This keeps you away from the “What the Hell Effect.”

The “What the hell effect” is when you make a decision or take an action that doesn’t align with the goals you have set.

I am a sugar fiend. I love candy, ice cream, and treats. You put a Crumble Cookie in front of me, there is no way I’m saying no! I’m also the guilty party that if you put that cookie in front of me on a Tuesday, I toss my hands up in the air and say “well - I guess I’ll just have to start again on Monday! What the hell!

The logical part of me knows that is ridiculous. But I think many of us have been there, done that. The reminder I give myself when I find myself spiraling is “If you got one flat tire, you wouldn’t go and slash the other three.” That gives me a solid visual of how ridiculous I am being.

If I build in “emergency” days, it gives me the permission to keep moving forward with my goals, even if I “messed up.” It helps me not throw my hands up in the air and start over four days later. It keeps me progressing toward my goals, and it stops the downward spiral.

The best part of building in emergencies is that it prevents cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is the state of having thoughts or taking actions that don’t align with the person you want to be. For me, I want to be a healthy person. I want to be a fit person. And for me, being a fit person means not falling face first into the bag of peanut butter M&Ms. The actual definition is “the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially relating to behavioral decisions and attitude changes.

So when I do find myself stuck in a Crumble Cookie box, or I miss a workout, these emergency days keep me from experiencing cognitive dissonance. Because I know that I have these days built into my plan. It keeps small dips in my road from being potholes.

Wherever you are in your journey of change. Keep going. Remember that it isn’t always about that one new goal you are reaching for. It is about all the other goals, habits, and life changes you have made, that exist in phase 5, the ones you are able to maintain. You are already a success. Truly. You are.

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