I Want to Change, But Why Is It So Hard?

Making lasting personal changes is not as easy as we might hope.

Unfortunately (or fortunately), meaningful lasting changes call for a series of mental, emotional, and physical steps that require work.

According to the renowned psychologist James Prochaska, to create lasting personal changes we must pass through five key stages called “The Transtheoretical Model of Behavior Change.” While that academic title might not spark your desire to dive deeper, the content of each stage is worth the read.

Stage 1: Pre-contemplation
This is my personal favorite. It’s the “non-commitment phase” of change. At this stage, there’s no real commitment to move into any level of action. Here, we’re casually browsing possibilities: What we might want to change vs. actual changes. Essentially, we’re just playing with the idea of changing. At this stage:

  • We know we need to (or “should”) change, but we have no intention of altering or stopping our behavior yet.
  • We have tried to change before but were unsuccessful, which might make us reluctant to try again.
  • We need additional motivation to move to the next stage.

Many of us confuse the pre-contemplation stage with the real contemplation stage. In order to move to that stage, we need to believe an increase in pleasure (or decrease in pain) will result from the change. If not, we typically move on or abandon the contemplated change.

Stage 2: Contemplation
The real pondering begins now. At this stage, we begin to seriously consider the changes we need or want to make. Maybe we received feedback about a significant personal “flaw.” Or perhaps we experienced pain that pushed us to think about how a change would reduce distress and increase pleasure. At this stage:

  • We dive deeper into what needs to change, acknowledging that a shift is required.
  • We usually are frustrated about our current situation or behavior. We wish to eliminate uncertainty and fears.
  • It’s easy to get stuck over-analyzing the pros and cons of either staying put or making changes.

At stage two, we still haven’t committed to moving into action. We’re still contemplating the pros and cons of potential change. If our true commitment to change reaches a threshold, we move on to stage three. If, on the other hand, the idea of change fizzles, we do nothing. Let’s be clear, however. Moving to stage three should not be confused with “successfully executing” a change. It’s possible to make an “intellectual” commitment at stage three, yet fail to move into action or make necessary preparations, leading us back back to square one (no change).

Stage 3: Preparation
The significance of stage three is that we move from thinking about making a change to actually doing something about it (preparation). This stage:

  • Only materializes if we’ve committed to changing in the immediate future.
  • May include taking small practice steps toward the new behavior or change. These tentative steps typically last 30 days at the most.
  • Is successful if we maintain or increase our commitment to the change. This may include a system, accountability partner, or continuous positive affirmation.

Once we’ve prepared for change, it’s time to move into action. However, until we arrive at stage four, the preparation stage does not guarantee success. The name of the game is action!

Stage 4: Action
As the saying goes, “Nothing changes until you do something different.” Thinking or planning for a change matters little if you don’t move into action. At this stage:

  • We activate our plan and consistently execute it.
  • We recognize that consistent practice – not perfection—is the key. If we fail, we pick ourselves up and start over. We are committed to change, and realize it’s a long-term process. “Failing forward” is part of the process.
  • We avoid over-analyzing, passing judgments, or feeling guilty.

Taking small daily steps toward your desired change is better than taking no action at all. It’s easy at this stage to give up, but with the correct support and systems, we can push through to the final stage.

Stage 5: Maintenance
At this stage, the heavy lifting has been done. Now it’s time for the less glamorous part—maintenance. While this stage isn’t as difficult, it does require unwavering commitment and motivation. It takes 1,500 repetitions to create a new habit. This is why consistently maintaining changed behavior is key. At this stage:

  • We maintain or solidify permanent changes.
  • Maintenance involves recommitment and continuous motivation.
  • It’s helpful to receive consistent support from others.

All change involves personal choice and commitment. Until we’re fully committed to making a change, it’s better to stay in pre-contemplation or contemplation-mode. Once we are motivated and committed, it’s time to prepare, act, and maintain the change.

If you are leading and managing change, first consider how you handle personal changes (and what you might need to fine-tune) before asking others to change.