The 6 Stages to Plan on When You Want to Change

Way back in 1977, while I was graduating from Simmons College (and wondering how the heck I was going to get a job using what I’d learned), James Prochaska and his colleagues at the University of Rhode Island were developing a revolutionary new theory about how people change. It was called the Transtheoretical Model (TTM), which proposed that people who successfully change their behavior pass through six stages.

* Precontemplation (not ready): You don’t intend to take action anytime soon. You may not even know what the problem is.

* Contemplation (getting ready): You become aware of the problem and start to weigh the pros and cons of changing your behavior.

* Preparation (ready): You intend to take action in the immediate future. You make a plan to change and start taking small steps toward the change.

* Action: You are now making modifications in your behavior.

* Maintenance: You have successfully changed and you’re working to prevent relapse.

* Termination (this stage is optional; not everyone attains it): You are no longer tempted by your former behavior and don’t even consider returning to it.

While Prochaska et. al. focused mainly on how to help people modify unhealthy habits, such as smoking and overeating, his model of change can also apply to the world of business.

Here’s an example of these stages in action:

Stephanie hired me because she was in the process of starting her own marketing firm. She was still working full-time at her day job and spending close to another 40 hours a week building her own company. Understandably, she was getting tired. But she couldn’t begin to consider quitting her old job until she could support herself and her family with her new one.

Stephanie was in the precontemplation stage: she had the feeling something was amiss, but she didn’t know what to do about it.

I gave Stephanie the assignment to imagine what her life and her workday would look like when she could focus exclusively on her new business. How did her behavior represent her values? Was she able to be her authentic self in the new role?

By visualizing what it might be like to focus all her energy on her new business, Stephanie entered the contemplation stage. She had begun to assess the benefits (and the risks) of taking this big step in her career.

Next, I asked Stephanie to figure out what had to happen before she could leave her full-time job. Our following session was devoted to reviewing her vision and creating steps to get her there, including a timeline. With that, Stephanie moved into the preparation stage: she was now ready to move into action.

What I’ve learned from reviewing Prochaska’s model and working with my clients is that there’s a process and an order to change. The actions you need to take depend on what stage you are at in the process. There’s a time to mull over an idea, a time to address whether the change is possible by exploring the pros and cons and reaching out to others for input, a time to put a stake in the ground by committing to dates, and a time to move into action.

As you work toward your goals that require change this year, consider: Where are you in the process? If you can’t make a decision about what to do, maybe the pros of changing don’t outweigh the cons: the pain of staying put has not yet become worse than the discomfort of change. Perhaps the time isn’t quite right. Sometimes you have to go backward a step or two in the process. Sometimes you just have to leap across that barrier.

You can take a more mindful approach to change by being aware of where you are within the process of change, and using that knowledge to support you.