“I love to change the world, but I don’t know what to do, so I’ll leave it up to you.”- Alvin Lee
Change, is perhaps the only constant of human life. Despite this law of nature, it is something that humans resist. We want change in a lot of areas but, on a deeper level, we fear it, we resist it, and we often engage in subtle self sabotage which prevents it from occurring. Why is this, and how can we get ourselves to bring about change to improve our lives?
Change is a basic principle of the universe, the only truly constant thing in existence. It is in conflict with another universal principle, homeostasis. Homeostasis is the tendency for living things to stay the same through a pattern of adjustment, internal regulation, and resistance. When it comes to human beings trying to initiate change, homeostasis tends to win more often than not. It’s easier for humans to stay the same in the face of a behavioral change that is desired. Homeostasis wins because it’s far easier for us to fail than it is to succeed. In other words, failure is easy, changing is a lot more difficult.
The psychology behind human change has been studied rather extensively over the past forty years. In 1977 James O. Prochaska of the University of Rhode Island and his colleagues developed what they called the trans-theoretical model, since known simply as the Stages of Change. While the model was originally applied to drug and alcohol addiction, it has been adapted to all types of human behavioral and lifestyle changes. It has been referred to as “arguably the dominant model of health behavior change” of the last 50 years. The Stages of Change model is a simple one, and understanding it can help all of us make change a lot more easy.
The Stages of Change are:
1. Precontemplation-In this stage a person has not yet acknowledged that there is a problem behavior that needs to change. The 300 pound man has not yet acknowledge he is overweight, the pack a day smoker doesn’t realize it’s a problem, the person living on minimum wage doesn’t think that things could be better. In this stage a person is not necessarily happy, but oblivious to the idea that change is possible, probably because they are not yet ready to attack the process of change.
2. Contemplation-At this point a person acknowledges that there is a problem, something is wrong, but is not yet ready for sure that they want to change. They weigh the pros and cons of change, and change usually gets delayed. I’ll start tomorrow, next week, next month, when X happens and so on. This getting-ready-to-get-ready stage is often where homeostasis wins and change is defeated.
3. Preparation-This stage is characterized by preparations to bring upon the change. A person is now determined to begin a process of change within the next 30 days. Commitments are made to themselves, and frequently others. The smoker promises his wife and kids that he will quit, the 300 pounder promises a friend that they will walk every day at lunch. At this stage positive self talk can make or break the process, especially when a person goes public with their plan. Thoughtful preparation is the key to getting through this stage. Breaking goals down, keeping them simple and doable, sets up a person through a successful ride through this stage. The “what ifs” and “yeah buts” need to be overridden by achievable action steps which generate confidence.
4. Action-At this point a person has engaged in steps towards the desirable outcome for a six month period on a fairly consistent basis. People in this stage have shown improvement and have made strides towards achieving the desired outcomes. When progress has been made, a person needs to make note of it and celebrate their successes. Noticing what works, and doing more of that, rather than noticing what does not, becomes the key to making these positive changes permanent. A question that I often ask clients in this stage is “What are you doing now that you want to win before, and what have you stopped doing that you were doing before?” The purpose of this question is to show the client that they are doing it. Progress is not luck, but is the result of their own consistent efforts. When a person realizes this, change becomes internalized, self image improves, and a person is ready for more of the same.
5. Maintenance-at this point a person has incorporated and internalized the desired changes. They have been successful with maintaining their change goal for over six months. In this stage it is important that a person is aware of thoughts and behaviors that could lead to their slipping back into their original patterns. Being aware of stressful situations that will arise and being able to cope with these stressors successfully, is what is necessary for maintenance.
Some strategies to keep in mind during the process of change are:
1. Getting education and how-to information about desired change. This can come from reading, professional help, and honest feedback from people that you trust.
2. Acceptance of what you are feeling. Realize that it is okay to have feelings of doubt, shame, and guilt. Accept that your feelings are not facts, they are merely interpretations and are not necessarily true. The goal is to notice these feelings and to continue to act appropriately despite them.
3. Getting help from supportive friends, colleagues, and professionals may be required to initiate or maintain positive momentum. If it gets tough, don’t go it alone.
4. Counteract your negativity. Replace unhealthy attitudes and behaviors with healthy ones. For example, replacing your morning cigarette with 10 minutes of deep breathing outdoors is one example. Replacing that second 20 ounce cup of coffee with a large glass of water is another example.
5. Notice and celebrate your successes. As with all behavioral changes, success builds upon success, and tends to bring more of the same. Change is a slow, gradual, yet steady process. Think in terms of “this is a process, not an event.” Find appropriate ways to reward yourself along the way to the desired goal.
6. Pen and paper are important tools to utilize during this process. Identify where you are in the process of change, writing out the obstacles and challenging them, and identifying appropriate steps to take, in writing, will help. If you are doing this without professional help, in a self-help format, then writing is imperative.
So that’s the science behind human behavioral change. This model of change works, and works well. It has been tested, researched, and studied in thousands of experiments. Knowing where you are along the way to a desired goal, and knowing what steps to take, will get you where you want to be.
“It works if you work it.”-Anonymous
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