Many people have trouble swapping unhealthy habits for healthy ones. It may be easy to start strong then fade away and eventually call it a failure. Or maybe it’s hard to even get started.

Either way, it might be helpful to understand the well-documented five-step pattern to change identified by James Prochaska (2009) that most individuals go through when trying to form a new habit. These include:

  • Pre-contemplation: Not intending to or ready to change.
  • Contemplation: Thinking about it, but pros and cons of change seem about equal.
  • Preparation: Intending to change and have a plan of action for change within six months.
  • Action: Taking action on a regular basis.
  • Maintenance: Sustaining the change for at least 6 months; becomes part of a person’s lifestyle.

Unfortunately, it’s estimated that fewer than 20% of people with a less than ideal behavior make it to the action/maintenance phases of change at any one time.

Disconnect

Consider that if you’re in pre-contemplation or contemplation stage, even the slickest marketing messages concerning things like increasing physical activity or stopping smoking are irrelevant.

Just like marketing the “deal of the century” on the “best sewing machine ever made,” wouldn’t entice someone who doesn’t care enough about sewing to buy a machine.

If you’ve made unsuccessful attempts at changing a specific behavior, you’re likely bouncing between stages. Consider trying to determine which stage of behavior change you get stuck in most often, and why.

Here are the five steps or stages of change.

Pre-contemplation

Are you in pre-contemplation? My uncle smoked for years and after a check-up loved to call me and report the doctor’s observation that his lungs were clear – I may have nagged him about smoking a time or two.

One day he called to report he was diagnosed with emphysema and said, “The doctor told me to quit smoking.” Pre-contemplators are not motivated to change and often only a crisis like a diagnosis or hospitalization can move them into contemplation.

Contemplation

Thinking about changing a behavior indicates the contemplation stage. A contemplator judges the pros and cons equally so needs an extra push to move into action. If you’re in contemplation, consider whether you truly believe that this change will have a positive effect.

For example, if you just expect to continually lose function as you age, that belief alone could block your ability to start an exercise program.

Preparation

If you’ve ever bought an exercise machine or DVD, or signed up at a gym but never attended – you’re in the preparation stage of change. The infomercial industry is built on preparers – “In just 10 minutes a day you too can have these abs!”

It’s very common to bounce from preparation into action and then fall back into contemplation or preparation. If you’re having trouble moving into action, ask yourself the hard questions.

For example, if you’re trying to embrace exercise: Are you as strong and agile today as you were 3 years ago? What about 6 years from now – what function could you lose?

Help yourself create new habits. Many people know they won’t return to the gym after getting home from work – so put your gear in your car and stop there first!

Action and Maintenance

Action and maintenance are the last two stages of change. Again, it’s common to cycle back and forth out of action. Maintenance is the stage we all long for – that’s when the change has become a habit that feels right.

It’s on You

You have the power to make positive changes in your life, but first you have to believe that the change will bring more positive than negative outcomes, i.e., feeling/looking better versus time consuming/unfamiliar.

Spend time examining beliefs and expectations to give yourself the best odds of experiencing a positive shift! It takes practice to form a new habit so don’t give up! You can do this.

What is one behavior/habit you would like to change? Have you made attempts to change this habit? Is there an obvious barrier that is stopping you? What hidden barriers may be impacting your ability to form a healthy habit? Please share your thoughts below and let’s have a productive chat about it!

Kay Van NormanKay Van Norman is an internationally known healthy aging expert who directed the Keiser Institute on Aging, has extensive publications – including a Chinese translation of her book “Exercise and Wellness for Older Adults” – and created the Vitality Portfolio®, an action plan to build lifelong vitality – regardless of challenges.

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