How to Use the Six Stages of Behavioral Change

cycle_of_change_prochasckaI have a lot of empathy and respect for my training clients who are navigating their chosen path of change. That’s because it’s very common to get stuck when you’re trying to make a change – change is not always easy. How do people make meaningful, long-lasting changes to their health, body, or fitness level? Behavioral change was the subject of an outstanding session at FitSocial 13 by Dr. Denise McGuire, a licensed psychologist at the University of Colorado Center for Integrative Medicine.

Dr. McGuire maintains that we should use willingness instead of willpower and feeling “as if” instead of “acting as if” to make behavioral changes. Since it’s difficult to “act as if” in many situations, she suggests tapping into positive emotions about how you’ll feel when you accomplish the goal.

As Dr. McGuire points out, “change doesn’t happen in neat steps.” But when you know what to expect, change is smoother.

Myths About Change

Understanding these myths about behavioral change can help you feel less isolated and more tolerant of others:

  • Change is simple. Change is actually very complicated and scary for most people, according to Dr. McGuire. Surprisingly, one of the most common fears is around what will happen if we’re successful.
  • It just takes willpower to change. Ninety-five percent of diets do not work as long-term solutions and are not meant to be long-term solutions. Yet most people believe “lack of willpower” is the reason people fall off exercise and nutrition programs.
  • “I’ve tried everything but nothing works.” There are literally countless ways to reach a fitness or weight loss goal, so you definitely have not tried everything.
  • People don’t really want to change. According to Dr. McGuire, sixty percent of doctors do not believe their patients will actually lose weight. Does this impact how doctors go about helping patients? I would think so.

Stages of Change

Fewer than 20 percent in any given population in any given point in time are ready to make a behavioral change, according to Dr. McGuire. Instead they’re in some other stage of thinking about change or denying they need to change.

The simple but powerful Prochaska stages of change help you identify where you are in the change process and how to move forward. You can cycle through these stages indefinitely and these stages can be applied to any situation. Where do you fall?

  1. Pre-contemplation. You’re resistant to change and deny that there’s a problem. You want to change the people around you instead of changing yourself. You feel demoralized, hopeless, and defensive.
    Strategies for moving forward: Begin educating yourself about how to change and list your reasons for changing.
  2. Contemplation. You want to stop feeling stuck and you’re beginning to have awareness of the problems being caused by not changing. You start reading books and try to understand the problem. Yet you still fear failure and are ambivalent about changing.
    Strategies for moving forward: Take an honest look at the problem and commit to tackling it.
  3. Preparation. You are very aware of the problem and plan to take action within a month. You have increasing confidence  and change becomes a priority.
    Strategies for moving forward: Think through the details of what you need to do. Tell others of your plan and gather support. Set concrete goals for what you will do, and set up a contingency plan (what if you can’t get to the gym?).
  4. Action. This stage requires the GREATEST amount of commitment and effort. You need ongoing support to maintain your momentum.
    Strategies for moving forward: Be very clear about what’s motivating you. Write down your reasons for changing and engage positive self-talk. Rely on your support network!
  5. Maintenance. Your job is to prevent relapses and allow an identity shift to take place. For example, you may not be used to so much attention now that you’ve lost the weight. 
    Strategies for moving forward:
     Work on allowing yourself to have this change and solidify your new identity. Keep a positivity journal and stay accountable by relying on others for support.
  6. Termination. Once you’re established in your goal, you can move on to what’s next.

Where Are You?

To determine which stage you’re in, answer the following:

  • I am intending to take action in the nex six months (contemplation)
  • I am intending to take action in the next month (preparation)
  • I have taken action on my problem within the last six months (action)
  • I solved my problem more than six months ago (maintenance)

Traits of Successful Changers

Dr. McGuire says that people who are successful at change have the following characteristics:

  • They maintain a singular focus on success
  • They’re persistent
  • They know and practice change all the time (ongoing)
  • They changed their beliefs about themselves
  • They’re willing to look at underlying issues and find alternative ways of coping.

Tips for Making Changes

Dr. McGuire offered these tips:

  • Be clear in your motivation
  • Take on one issue at a time
  • Get support!
  • Track your progress
  • Learn from your setbacks and relapses

What has helped you make big changes in your life?

This article originally appeared on

14 thoughts on “How to Use the Six Stages of Behavioral Change

  1. Suzanne, I appreciate you sharing this in-depth perspective and particularly applaud the distinction between willingness and will power. I have found that recruiting both my head and my heart are essential for making permanent, positive change.


  2. Where am I? I’m a combination of “maintenance” and “action” because I believe you need both to maintain! It’s not just a free ride once you reach goal weight!


  3. Change was a slow process but necessarily when staying where I was become to painful. I think I went up and down the scale a 1000 times before maintenance. I tell my clients the process is not linear, they will go back and forth.


  4. I love sharing the stages of change with people, I think it helps solidify our thinking when considering change. Change takes a lot of effort and consistency, aka practice. I believe keeping our motivation in the front of our minds is key. Great article!


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