Short-term versus long-term behavior
For the purposes of this article, it’s important to distinguish between the short term and the long term when it comes to behavior.
In the short term, behavior refers to a specific action or inaction.
In the long term, behavior refers to repeated actions or inactions – habitual behaviors.
This article focuses on the long-term aspect.
Nutshell summary: What are the stages?
Prochaska and DiClemente’s transtheoretical model of behavior change is a predictive and actionable model of behavior change with multiple stages.
Under this model, there are stages you transit while changing your behavior:
- Precontemplation: You are unaware of the need for change – or even actively deny the need to change.
- Contemplation: You acknowledge the need for change.
- Preparation: You are making plans for how to change.
- Action: You are acting on plans to change.
- Maintenance: You are actively maintaining your changed behavior.
- Relapse: Your prior pattern of behavior re-emerges, and you revert to stage 1, 2 or 3.
If you want to change your behavior long term, it is important to focus on interventions targeted to your specific stage in the process.
If you are looking for more detailed advice beyond what I provide here, in my experience, many of the techniques in Atomic Habits by James Clear mesh very well with the transtheoretical model, even if it isn’t called out explicitly by the book.
Stopping undesired behaviors versus introducing desired behaviors
Broadly speaking, a long-term behavior change could be either the introduction of a desired behavior (e.g., exercising regularly) or the elimination of an undesired behavior (e.g., stopping smoking).
The transtheoretical model tends to be used most frequently with cessation of undesired behavior, but it is equally valid for the establishment of desired behaviors.
Of course, it may require different tactics at each stage, but the strategy implicit in the stages remains the same.
All of the following are in the descriptive breadth of this model:
- abstaining from addictive substances and behaviors;
- abstaining from social media;
- adhering to a diet;
- adhering to a budget;
- exercising regularly;
- writing regularly; or
- practicing mindfulness regularly.
Of course many other behavior changes are in scope as well.
And, again, if you are dealing with addiction, seek immediate formal help. The explanation of the transtheoretical model by itself is insufficient to take you through recovery, even as an understanding of its stages may accelerate it.
Measuring your success
If you’ve decided to try out the transtheoretical model (or any model) to change a habitual behavior for yourself, you have to be able to measure whether or not it’s working for you.
The metric for evaluation matters.
Models that you can’t measure are a compass without a needle.
I’ll adopt the same metric from models of short-term self-control: a model of long-term behavior change is working for you if it minimizes the amount of foreseeable regret you experience from your habitual behaviors.
Foreseeable regret stems from actions where, in the very moment you undertake them, you could have reasonably predicted that your future self would come to regret those actions.
For example, if you decide to limit non-essential spending to 200 dollars per month as part of a financial recovery plan, but then impulse buy a 100 dollar smart toaster after you’ve hit your limit, you will experience foreseeable regret.
Or, if you have a habit of eating candy at night, but always regret doing so the next morning, you are experiencing recurring foreseeable regret.
What does not change long-term behavior?
One advantage of the transtheoretical model is that it shatters a common misconception up front – that behavior change needs only awareness and desire.
To be clear, desire to change and awareness of the need to change are not sufficient to change behavior, but they are still necessary.
Desire alone is insufficient
Addiction illustrates the insufficiency of desire by itself.
If you ask anyone suffering from addiction whether they want to have that addiction, they will say no.
If not having an addiction were as simple as wanting not to have it, there would be no addiction.
Yet, tragically, millions die every year from unwanted addictions.
Clearly, mere desire to change one’s behavior alone does not change behavior, even under penalty of death.
Awareness alone is insufficient
The “3–4–50 finding” in public health illustrates how awareness alone fails.
Under this finding, three (changeable) behaviors drive four diseases, which in turn lead to around 50% of all deaths.
The behaviors are (1) low physical activity; (2) poor diet; and (3) tobacco use.
The four diseases are (1) cancer; (2) heart disease and stroke; (3) type 2 diabetes; and (4) lung disease.
That is, unchanged behavior could be a factor in around half of all deaths.
Of course, not every case of these diseases is a direct consequence of behavior, but even under conservative estimates, there is staggering premature death linked to unchanged behavior.
The behavior changes necessary to prevent these deaths – modest exercise, eating less and not smoking – are known by virtually everyone.
Clearly, awareness alone is not sufficient by itself to induce change.
From precontemplation to contemplation
If you’re in the first stage—precontemplation—you don’t yet know that change may be in your best interest.
So, how can you identify habitual behaviors in your life that might benefit from change?
In short: pay attention to consequences of your own behavior.
Here are some questions to ask yourself:
Where have I experienced foreseeable regret in my life?
What are my behaviors that, if left unchanged, will eventually cause foreseeable regret?
Where are the consequences of my own actions causing me discomfort or pain?
Where are well-meaning others trying to tell me that change may help?
Lessons from 12-step recovery communities
Not every undesired behavior rises to the level of needing a 12-step program, but for those that do, the first step in these programs provides a litmus test for recognizing specific behaviors that would benefit from change – when a behavior leads to the unmanageability of one’s life, or a sense of powerlessness over that behavior.
“We admitted we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable.” (Step 1, Alcoholics Anonymous)
“We admitted that we were powerless over our addiction, that our lives had become unmanageable.” (Step 1, Narcotics Anonymous)
“We admitted we were powerless over addictive sexual behavior - that our lives had become unmanageable.” (Step 1, Sex Addicts Anonymous)
“We admitted we were powerless over clutter—that our lives had become unmanageable.” (Step 1, Clutterers Anonymous)
“We admitted we were powerless over food—that our lives had become unmanageable.” (Step 1, Overeaters Anonymous – which covers all eating disorders, including anorexia and bulimia.)
There are many 12-step programs available today.
If any first step in a twelve-step program resonates with you, attending a meeting of the associated recovery community may help.
From contemplation to preparation
Once you’ve recognized the need for change, you want to move as swiftly as possible toward preparation for change.
In the case of behaviors you wish to stop, a well-studied approach for moving from contemplation to preparation is to self-monitor and track the behavior in question.
It doesn’t have to be much more complicated that making a note of the conditions you’re in each time you engage in the behavior.
What you’re looking for are the triggers that lead to the behavior.
In a very simple but effective example of tracking, James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, shared the story of Zach on his email newsletter, who carried a notecard around to jot down the following every time he engaged in problematic behavior:
- Who am I with?
- What am I doing right now?
- Where am I?
- When is it?
- What emotions are driving my actions?
It should not take long before you have a sense of the conditions that trigger your undesired behavior.
And, understanding these conditions will shift the question from the somewhat abstract “how do I change my behavior” to the more concrete “how do I eliminate, mitigate or manage each of these conditions”?
Several feelings may also hold you back in the stage of contemplation, or even push you backward through denial into precontemplation, including:
feelings of shame;
feelings of overwhelm or dread; or even
feelings of hopelessness or impossiblity.
Dissipating shame with self-compassion
Shame is the sense that you yourself are a bad person.
In the context of undesired behavior, shame blocks change.
Shame makes you feel like you are fundamentally flawed and that what needs to change is not your behavior, but you yourself – a task which is ill-defined and may even feel impossible.
Conversely, guilt is the understanding that you have done something wrong, rather than feeling that you are wrong.
Do not allow guilt to metastasize into shame.
In contrast to shame, when you feel guilt, you can atone for prior behavior, and you can prevent future problematic behavior.
To move past these negative feelings, practice self-compassion and self-forgiveness.
To dissipate shame, recognize that everyone makes mistakes, and treat yourself with the same kindness and forgiveness you would offer a friend in your situation.
If you are finding difficulty with self-compassion and self-forgiveness, there are mindfulness practices that have been subjected to scientific scrutiny that can help you cultivate this sense in yourself.
For example, in a randomized controlled trial, a technique known as “loving-kindness meditation” provided an increase in self-compassion, and compassion-based interventions more generally seem to be effective for a wide variety of conditions.
Speaking for myself, I can attest to the efficacy of loving-kindness meditation in its ability to increase my sense of compassion for others and for myself.
Guilt and shame in 12-step programs
While the words shame and guilt aren’t explicitly mentioned in the 12 steps, the near universality of shame as an obstacle in recovery is addressed implicitly in steps 4–10.
Managing overwhelm or dread with an incremental approach
In some cases, the idea of change (especially major change) feels overwhelming, inducing a sense of dread.
For these behaviors, iteratively reducing planning to the very next step until one arrives at a single atomic action (or inaction) can alleviate this sense of overwhelm or dread.
In the case of avoiding urges for undesired behavior, reframing a long-term abstinence as merely a day, an hour or a minute of abstinence can feel far less daunting when an urge strikes.
Your plan might also need to include a gentle on-ramp.
For example, if your plan is to go to the gym every day for thirty minutes, starting with at home body-weight exercises for two minutes each day can help you kickstart the habit.
Once the exercise habit is going, then add one day at the gym per week, then two, then three, up until you’ve reached your plan.
(You can also fall back on your minimal at-home version when crisis or stress strikes in order to preserve the habit for the long term.)
Dealing with a sense of hopelessness or impossibility
In some cases, behavior change can seem daunting, hopeless or impossible.
In such cases, professional counselors and therapists can provide support.
And, if a 12-step program is available for the behavior in question, these programs can also provide significant motivational support.
Sometimes, a shift in perspective can help.
You can suspend judgment on whether your goal is possible or impossible, and you can ask instead, “what is the best I can do right now, today and tomorrow to reach that goal some day?”
Doing the best you can – with the resources you have, with the circumstances you’re in and with the mind you’ve inherited – at that moment is all you can ever do anyway.
Once you feel ready to plan for change, the planning can be as simple as writing down an intention.
However, how you write down that intention may significantly impact your success in crossing over to action and long-term success.
For example, writing down a goal such as “I intend to lose ten pounds,” is not a plan in and of itself.
It is a firmly expressed desire and a measureable outcome that signals you are in the contemplation stage.
A plan is a specific course of actions or inactions that, if undertaken, should accomplish your goal.
A plan would be “I will record all of my calories and stay under my predefined calorie budget.”
From preparation to action
You may find that even once you have an actionable plan, getting started and acting on the plan can be hard.
For example, as before, a sense of overwhelm or dread can set in.
Once again, reducing the next step to the next most immediate action can help.
For example, it’s easier to tell yourself to write one sentence of a blog post each day than to write an entire blog post.
It’s also easier to focus on scope of your plan that you can implement today.
In general, however, action becomes easier when the plan itself becomes both specific and atomic in the form of “implementation intentions.”
Bridging planning and action with implementation intentions
Psychologist Peter Gollwitzer developed implementation intentions in response to findings that intention does not seem to help change behavior.
Implementation intentions are a specific form of planning where pre-specified actions are triggered by pre-specified events.
They are specified as “if/when-then” rules such as:
“When I am about to eat, I will count and track all of the calories for my meal before the first bite.”
“When I finish dinner, I will walk to the gym and work out for 15 minutes.”
“If I feel the urge to purchase something non-essential, then I will place it in my ‘contemplating’ list and I will wait 24 hours before deciding to buy it.”
“When I brush my teeth, I will take my prescription medication.”
“If it is 6:00am, then I will do ten push-ups.”
How to remember implementation intentions
If you find yourself not remembering a specific implementation intention in the moment, it may help to introduce memory aids into the environment where the trigger is likely to occur.
For example, if you intend not to buy junk food when at the grocery store, then putting “DON’T BUY JUNK FOOD” at the top of your shopping list will help you remember.
I personally find that location- and time-based reminders on an iPhone can be excellent nudges for acting on implementation intentions in the right moment.
In my personal experience, keeping a printed or written copy of my implementation intentions to read early every morning helps my brain remember the right action in the right place and time.
Leveraging social accountability
Merely sharing your plans for action with someone else increases the odds you will engage in those plans.
You can even ask them to check in on your progress, or pledge to provide daily updates on your progress as a way of maintaining an active accountability to yourself through another.
Preparing your environment for change
My prior writings on the Least Resistance Philosophy may provide strategies for engaging in action by virtue of conducting preparation.
In short, the least resistance philosophy is to “mold your life so that the path of least resistance is the path of maximum productivity,” which relates to long-term behavior change with two of its principles:
Reduce transaction costs to engaging in productive behavior.
Erect transaction costs to engaging in counter-productive behavior.
For example, if you want to eat fewer snacks, put them in the pantry instead of on the counter.
Or put them in a safe that you have to unlock each time.
Or don’t even buy them in the first place, so that eating a snack now means going to the store.
In general, scouring your environment for temptations and muting or eliminating them will help you mute or eliminate undesired behavior.
From action to maintenance
As old habitual behaviors recede, it is important to reconnect with your prior intentions and motivations.
Stress and crisis can cause older default patterns of thinking and behavior to re-emerge.
(This is one reason why in 12-step-based recovery programs, many attend multiple group meetings per week, even decades after an undesired behavior has been extinguished.)
More generally, for any lasting behavior change where your default natural behavior is the undesired behavior, there is no way to sustain your desired behavior without perpetual, effortful and deliberate re-engagement with your motivations and intentions.
Once again, it helps to track and review all of your active implementation intentions every day, so that you can learn to associate the trigger with the intention.
You can even set your first implementation intention as:
If it is 7:00am, then I will read all of my active implementation intentions and review my compliance with them for yesterday.
During maintenance, it helps to extend implementations from “if/when-then” to “if/when-then-because” so that the original motivation is retained.
“When I am about to eat, I will count and track all of the calories for my meal before the first bite because I tend over-eat and my weight has put my health at risk.”
“When I brush my teeth, I will take my prescription medication because I had problematic adherence in the past and a lapse put my health in danger.”
Over time, as implementation intentions gel into automatic habits, they can form a kind of “personal operating system.”
Handling relapse with self-forgiveness
Relapse into prior behavior isn’t so much as stage of behavior change as a common part of the journey toward long-term lasting change.
Relapse isn’t necessarily inevitable, but it is strikingly common.
Given that ubiquity, it is essential in the event of relapse to practice self-compassion and self-forgiveness.
Relapse after sincere efforts can even provoke intense shame and despair.
As with dissipating shame at the beginning, practices such as loving-kindness meditation may help once again.
In my own experience, loving-kindness meditation helps a great deal.
In terms of self-forgiveness, I personally experienced some of the most transformative insights through short lectures on free will by neuroscientist-philosopher Sam Harris.
Reframe relapse as opportunity to strengthen
Relapse can and should be taken as an opportunity to reflect and improve.
Relapse can even be taken as a personal challenge to strengthen your capacity for self-compassion and self-forgiveness.
After relapse, pause.
Take a moment to consider what you can change going forward to minimize the chance it will happen again.
Understanding and navigating the stages of behavior change is a journey that requires patience, self-awareness, and persistence.
Remember that change is rarely linear and often involves setbacks.
Embrace each stage as an integral part of personal growth and set your compass always toward the next stage.
As you reflect, consider where you are in your own process of change.
What is the next small, manageable step you can take today?
Start there, and let each atomic action build upon the last.
And if you find yourself in need of support or guidance, don’t hesitate to reach out to professionals or join communities that resonate with your goals.
Though your path to change is uniquely yours, you don’t have to walk it alone.
You might enjoy some of my other posts on self-control and behavior change:
I’d like to thank my executive leadership coach and friend, Dr. Beverly Smallwood, for her contributions to this article, including her suggestion that behavior tracking is an excellent way to move from contemplation to preparation.