Behaviour change is always a challenge – whether it be trying to change your own behaviour, helping a friend or loved one to change their behaviour, or trying to elicit behaviour change at a community level. There have been many different suggestions about ways to support people to change behaviour, although there is still no clear best answer.
One of the more popular models is the Transtheoretical Model, which describes change in six stages. Many people find these stages useful for identifying how close a person is to changing their behaviour and for guidance in how to support them. These six stages of change are:
In precontemplation, people are not yet considering change. Although people in this stage are often under-informed about the impacts of their existing behaviour, they may also feel that the “benefits” to their existing behaviour or challenges of changing justify a choice to not change more than a choice to change. This is the hardest group to engage in behaviour change because they are unlikely and possibly unwilling to see any reason to change. However, it has been proposed that further education and trying to re-frame the way the person views their behaviour (e.g. consider the effects their behaviour has on others, not just themselves) may help to move people in this stage closer towards change.
In the contemplation stage, people begin to weigh up the benefits and challenges of changing their behaviour more seriously. However, they are likely to feel “stuck” in making the decision – interested in changing but still holding significant reservations about change. Additional information may be helpful in this stage but it has been more strongly suggested that reflecting on how one compares to a role model or an “ideal self” may help to prompt a person to move towards changing.
People in the preparation stage intend to change their behaviour but are yet to actually begin changing. They may, however, be engaged in actions designed to support later attempts to change. This may include identifying resources and supports to help them change. Often, people in this stage benefit from gaining additional empowerment such as identifying more options for strategies to change, or by events or experiences prompting people to change (e.g. as happens with New Year’s Resolutions).
People in the action stage have actively begun to change their behaviour. Thus, here the focus is not on instigating change but supporting ongoing efforts to change. This can include defining rewards/punishments corresponding to different behaviour, identifying alternatives to undesired behaviour(s), finding ways to remove triggers for undesired behaviour(s), and building social relationships that will help support successful behaviour change.
In maintenance, people have largely achieved behaviour change but may be prone to lapsing back to old behaviour. Thus, supporting people to maintain their changed behaviour, often using the same strategies that enabled them to succeed in the action stage, is a priority in this stage.
Termination refers to complete behavioural change, where the prior undesired behaviour is considered permanently changed. For many behaviours (e.g. dietary changes), termination may not be attainable and many people working with the Transtheoretical Model do not discuss termination as it is rare to attain.
According to the Transtheoretical Model, people do not necessarily move smoothly between stages of change – people start at different stages of change, may skip stages, and may find they slip backwards. For example, it often takes smokers several attempts to quit smoking before they are successful; this may mean shifting between contemplation, preparation, action, and maintenance stages several times on each attempt to quit. In this way it is important that people understand they have not failed if they do not successfully move through all stages in a single attempt to quit. Rather, these stages provide an effective way of gauging progress towards change.
If you would like to know which stage of change you are in, and aren’t sure from the descriptions above, try our quick Stages of Change self-appraisal tool. Most people looking at this website are likely to already be in the contemplation stage or further in the model.
For more information on the Transtheoretical Model, the Department of Health website contains further elaboration of the model, while the Black Dog Institute provides a factsheet with some suggestions on how you may actively support a person in different stages of change.