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The Ultimate Model for Successful and Long-Lasting Behavior Change
How to use the Transtheoretical Model to go from stuck to unstoppable
I love the TV show How I Met Your Mother. The series has a lot of long-running gags, but my favorite is one involving the song “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” by the Proclaimers. The joke is that one of the central characters, Marshall, has a cassette tape stuck in his car, so the stereo only plays that song — over and over again, for years.
Our inner world sometimes seems similar. Our inner monologue sounds like a tape player stuck on repeat, replaying the same self-talk. Over time, our habits become deeply ingrained and we feel as if we’re going through life on auto-pilot.
My coaching business is driven by people who aren’t totally sure how to change — and how to make transformations stick in the long run.
One client, who I’ll call Chloe, compared this feeling of inertia to the classic Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day. “Every day feel like a cycle on repeat,” she said, “the exact same problems crop up, just on different days. I start out the morning with the best intentions, yet I always end up feeling the same way — stressed, out of control–every evening. I make a pact with myself to try and do better tomorrow. But it’s always the same story.”
Chloe’s inability to change wasn’t due to a lack of intelligence. She was an Ivy League graduate and the head of engineering at a fast-growing startup. Objectively, she knew what steps she needed to take to her improve her situation at work (namely, creating better boundaries and systems to communicate with her team). But despite her smarts, she struggled to take action.
When I encounter a “stuck” client like Chloe, I help them understand that change is a process—not an overnight transformation. Once you understand the steps in that process, where you’re currently at, and how to move on, you can make progress on that change.
In this article, I’ll share the Transtheoretical Model of Behavior Change, and show how you—like Chloe and my other clients—can apply it to make changes in your life more effectively to get unstuck, stop backsliding, and make changes that stick.
Steps in the Personal Change Process
In the early 1980s, health psychologists James Prochaska and Carlo DiClemente developed a model to explain how make long-lasting behavior changes. Their Transtheoretical Model (TTM) recognizes that people are in different stages of readiness for change.
It’s easiest to think of the model as an upward spiral or curve, progressing through the five stages of change:
- Precontemplation: no real intent to take action. No consideration of the consequences of not taking action.
- Contemplation: awareness of the problem. Intent to take action, but no real commitment to do so.
- Preparation: intends to take action within a month’s time. Has made some preparations to do so.
- Action: actually taking the action to make the behavior change (typically the first 6 months of successful change).
- Maintenance: successful change for 6 months or more. Confidence in ability and commitment to continue behavior; relapse prevention.
By identifying your position in the change process, you can choose specific action steps that help you move further along, until you reach a “lasting exit” where results are more permanent.
While the time you may stay in each stage is variable, the tasks required to move to the next stage are not. That’s why you can’t simply force yourself to “just do it” when it comes to making radical shifts in your life.
Taking the inappropriate actions before you’re mentally and emotionally ready is the surest path to failure. Certain strategies work best at each stage to reduce resistance, stoke progress, and prevent backslides. If you’ve ever tried to motivate a loved one to lose weight or adopt a healthy habit when they’re resistant, then you understand this struggle firsthand.
Several years ago, I tried to convince my father to eat better and exercise more because his high blood pressure was getting worse. While he recognized the problem, he refused to acknowledge weight loss as a solution, choosing to treat the condition with medication instead.
My efforts to educate him on healthy food swaps and the dangers of obesity only escalated tensions between us. He felt patronized and misunderstood. I felt resentful, because it seemed like he was ignoring me.
It wasn’t until my father’s doctor warned him that he was on the verge of developing diabetes that he finally embraced new foods and healthier alternatives. Today, my father has lost over sixty pounds and hikes 4–5 miles twice per week. He had to be ready and internally motivated to move out of stages 1, 2, and 3 before he could take action and then, finally, move on to lasting change.
I might have taken a different approach back then if I’d been able to see his situation in the context of the Transtheoretical Model.
Understanding the predictable process of change, and knowing which stage you’re in, can be the key that unlocks your progress and helps you finally make improvements in your life.
Assessment: Where Are You At In the Model?
You can get a rough idea of which stage you’re in with a very simple self-assessment known as The Readiness Ruler.
Your responses to these two questions can tell you where you fall on the spectrum from precontemplation to maintenance for the goal you want to achieve. From there, you can devise action steps most aligned with your stage of readiness.
Ask yourself, on a scale of 0–10….
Precontemplators fall towards the ends of the scale, in the 0–3 range.
If you fall within the 4–7 range, it’s likely you’ve moved to contemplation and want to make a change within the next six months.
A score of 8 or above on both questions indicates you’re entering preparation and possibly even the action stage.
Once you have a good sense of which stage you are in, you can take specific actions to help you work through that stage and, eventually, on to the next.
Stage 1: Precontemplation
People in this stage don’t intend to take action within the next six months. They may be blissfully unaware or intentionally ignoring the consequences of their behavior. Resistance and defensiveness are the hallmarks of precontemplation.
If you feel demoralized after previously unsuccessful attempts to change, you may be stuck in this stage. It’s common for precontemplators to have a defeatist attitude and say, “Oh, that’s just how I am” to justify their behavior or make excuses like “I can’t [get to the gym/start writing/travel], I’m too busy.” People in precontemplation often place too much emphasis on the costs of changing their behavior and underestimate the upsides. It sometimes takes a scary test result or ultimatum from a loved one to get a person to think differently.
In this stage, raising your readiness for change comes down to gently raising your self-awareness.
For one week, try paying attention to your inner dialogue and the stories you tell yourself. How often do you say you can’t do or accomplish something? Do you say things like “I’ll never get better” or “the result is always the same, so why bother?”
This type of self-talk is a product of cognitive distortions: inaccurate thoughts that reinforce negative mental and emotional patterns, as first identified by psychologists Aaron Beck and David Burns.
Common cognitive distortions that pop up in precontemplation include:
- Mental filtering: picking out a single negative consequence and dwelling on it. For example, focusing on the foods you’ll have to give up or the new stressors a promotion will bring.
- Overgeneralization: believing you’ll always fail simply because change didn’t stick in the past. For example, you may swear off socializing at bars because of one bad experience, limiting opportunities to meet new people in the future. Or, if you bomb an interview once, you can’t help think to yourself, “I screw up everything.”
- Discounting the positive: in precontemplation, it’s common to minimize the benefits of changing and the role of your personal strengths. You focus on your weaknesses or personal failings (i.e. “I’m not outgoing” or “I’m just not a very organized person”) instead.
These thinking errors trap you in negativity, false beliefs, and create a self-fulling prophecies that only serve to keep you stuck.
Now that you’re familiar with these cognitive distortions, start to notice and label them.
- Look for examples of times you’ve succeeded in the past to refute over-generalizations.
- Brainstorm the benefits of what you’ll gain if you change your habits.
- I also like to ask clients, “what is going well or working best in your life right now?” as a gentle way to help them reflect on the positives, without arousing defensiveness.
- Every day, generate at least one way in which your life would be better if you behaved differently.
- If you find yourself saying “yeah, but…”, replace it with “and”. For example “yeah, but getting a promotion means I’ll have to give more presentations, which I hate” becomes “yes, getting a promotion means I’ll have to give more presentations and I’ll have the opportunity to design more, which I’ve been excited about for years.” Embrace new possibilities.
Stage 2: Contemplation
In the contemplation stage, you’re thinking seriously about the challenges you’re facing and how to overcome them. You may want to make a change, but aren’t sure where to start.
This is the stage my client Chloe found herself in when she came to work with me. She realized the current way she approached her work and well-being was untenable, yet she was unsure how to improve or what steps to take first.
People can bandy about in contemplation for years or decades. You may stay “on the fence” about moving forward for a long time, or find yourself hesitant to commit to any single approach. The pros and cons of change seem about equal, which can lead to ambivalence. Thoughtful consideration can go awry and turn into overthinking.
On the plus side, contemplation means you’re starting to imagine how the change will impact your life in positive ways. You’re inching closer to recognizing that the effort is well worth it. You’re beginning to desire change for yourself — not because someone is forcing you.
In other words, you’re moving from extrinsic motivation (seeking rewards or avoiding punishment) and towards intrinsic motivation (performing an action because it’s enjoyable and personally rewarding).
Connecting to your core values is one of the most powerful ways to strengthen your intrinsic motivation.
There are a number of different methods that can help you articulate your values.
- You can use a word inventory to circle values that resonate with you, then group and rank them.
- The Values in Action (VIA) Survey is grounded in decades of positive psychology research.
After taking the VIA, one my clients, Jacob, was surprised to discover Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence was one his top values. He finally understood why his drab cubicle left him feeling anxious as if he wanted to escape, while coworkers seemed less affected. Jacob made simple changes, like adding greenery to his workspace and taking awe walks to cope with stress, which produced sizable shifts in his happiness.
Contemplators are also open and receptive to new information. To shift from inertia to action, it can also help to seek out a coach or mentor. Learning from people who have already succeeded can give you confidence that you’re capable of accomplishing big things, too.
Stage 3: Preparation
In this stage, you start making initial behavior changes. Maybe you sign up for a fitness membership, attend a class, or purchase the supplies you need. Perhaps you start to clear your mind and space by donating clothes from your closet, or recycling papers from your desk.
Now is the time to develop a plan to deal with obstacles that may prevent you from reaching your big goal.
- Use the neuroscience of visualization to strategize about how you will shield yourself from distraction and temptation.
- Create an environment around you that’s conducive to your success.
- Protecting your mindset is important, too. Shore up your self-confidence by celebrating wins, even the small ones.
- Mental contrasting: imagine yourself completing a goal and brainstorm a list of obstacles that might get in your way. Create an if/then plan to prepare for inner or outer obstacles that may come up.
NYU researchers Gabrielle Oettingen and Peter Gollwitzer use the acronym WOOP to describe the process of creating a plan:
W: WISH — Describe the change you want to make in the next month. (I want to start painting again.)
O: OUTCOME––Identify the best possible result in vivid detail. (I feel peaceful and at ease painting in my home studio after work. I will have one painting finished by the end of this month.)
O: OBSTACLE — Be realistic about the internal and external roadblocks that could stall you. (I’m low on supplies. Work has been crazy busy and it’s all hands on deck.)
P: PLAN — Now create an if/then plan for how you’ll handle those obstacles if they arise, known as “implementation intentions”. (I’ll ask my boss what he needs done at 3pm, so I don’t have to stay late. I’ll order extra supplies so I have them on hand.)
Stage 4: Action
It’s go time! A person in the action stage is committed to change and has actually begun living differently.
You are writing 500 words a day, going to the gym, or consistently reaching out to new people to grow your business. Your results may not be significant yet, but you have the confidence and knowledge you need to continually persist.
At this stage, it’s all about keeping momentum. Now is the time to implement the if/then plans you created in the previous step if obstacles do come up.
Imposter Syndrome can rear its ugly heads during this phase because you are pushing your comfort zone and taking risks. Don’t let perfectionism stall your growth. You don’t have to do everything flawlessly — you just need to reframe failures as feedback by approaching challenges with a beginner’s mindset:
- Question your expectations — If you’re getting caught up in “shoulds” or “have-to’s”, try asking yourself “what would this look like if it were easy?” or “how could I make this fun?”
- Tinker like a scientist — Give yourself at least 20 hours to try out your new habit, too. Research suggests this is enough time to learn a new skill.
- Focus on the present — Instead of worrying about how you’ll keep up paleo meal planning for next five years, think about what healthy choices you’ll make today.
- Check-in regularly — Self-awareness is important throughout the change process, especially in this stage. It’s all too easy to get so carried away taking action that you lose sight of your values and long-term goals. Build in time for self-reflection to regularly take stock of your progress so you can pivot if needed.
During the action stage, support and accountability are also helpful. Use meetups, Facebook groups, or other communities to find support from like-minded peers. If you didn’t get a coach at an earlier phase, getting one for accountability and support now is another good tactic.
Stage 5: Maintenance
Now that you’ve been taking action for over six months, you’re more confident. Your new behaviors have become an integral part of your identity and lifestyle. Your desired change no longer feels like a big effort; it’s part of your daily routine.
This is when you may be prone to relapse. Major life events, stress, and old bad habits can creep in and set you back.
Prochaska and DiClemente found that approximately 15% of people relapse during maintenance and go back to the precontemplation stage. Thankfully, 85% eventually progress back to action once again.
The entire point of mastering the art of behavior change is to enjoy your life. But you can’t do that if you’re constantly depleted. During the maintenance stage, it’s important to avoid barriers like boredom, procrastination, and exhaustion.
Stress can derail you, so learn your triggers. What situations make you feel the most bummed out, annoyed, or angered? For example, maybe you’re sent into a tailspin of worry when you have to travel, and your normal routine is thrown off. Or maybe you crumble under growing expectations at work. If you can identify situations (or people) that spike your stress, you can anticipate your reaction and devise ways to cope more effectively.
For most people — particularly high-achievers — burnout is the greatest risk. While there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to overcoming burnout, you can take control by:
- Allowing room for physical, mental, and emotional recovery.
- Creating rituals that help you transition out of “work mode” and into relaxation.
- Setting stronger boundaries around your time, and saying no to anything that’s not essential to meeting your priorities.
- Communicating with friends and family to let them know if you need space or extra support.
- Breaking goals down into painfully simple steps, like meditating for just five minutes or writing 100 words a day.
When all else fails, reconnect to your intrinsic motivation–your bigger “why” for making this change in the first place.
As you progress through the personal change process, there will be times when you may feel like you’re not very competent. You’ll feel like you’re fumbling along and you’ll want to quit. That’s okay — in fact, it’s a good thing. It’s a sign you’re growing and challenging yourself. Don’t give up!
The personal change process is a long journey: on route to your final destination, there will be a million twists, turns, and dead-ends. You have to be willing to chart through new terrain. It requires questioning the assumptions you have about who you are and what you’re capable of. It takes open-mindedness and mental agility.
Remember that setbacks are an opportunity to uncover your strengths. I promise that long-lasting change is possible. Understanding where you are, and then taking appropriate action, is the key to leveling-up to the next stage in the process. The Transtheoretical Model shows you exactly how to do that.