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The 6 stages of behavior change: a how-to guide

June 3, 2021 - 15 min read


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Why is behavior change so hard?

The elements of behavior change

The 6 stages of behavior change

How to change behavior

Lasting behavior change is possible

If you’ve ever made (and broken) a New Year’s resolution, you know how hard behavior change can be.

You start January all excited about how different your life is going to be. Your motivation levels are through the roof.

But by mid-February, you’re back to where you were before Thanksgiving. Bad habits are now routine again.

But why is changing behavior so hard? And is there a way to make successful behavioral changes?

Let’s take a look at behavior change theory to determine what makes behavior change so hard. We also provide you with behavior change examples and share a six-step process that will teach you how to change behavior.

Why is behavior change so hard?

Most of our behavior is habitual. Behaviors become automatic when repeated over time. 

A good example of this is driving. When you learn to drive, it requires conscious effort to learn and remember all the right steps — “mirror, signal, maneuver,” anyone?

But as time goes on, those actions form habits.

This happens when you’ve practiced them so often that they become automatic.

Successful behavioral change is hard because our brains get stuck in fixed patterns

But the same mechanism that fixes our problem behavior as mental habits is often the solution to changing them. 

The role of neuroplasticity in behavior change

Neuroplasticity is the process by which our brains change as we learn. It refers to the physical structures of the brain. 

A new connection forms in your brain every time you learn something new

It’s weak at first, but with repetition, that connection becomes stronger over time. This makes the new, healthier behavior into a habit.

The three stages of the neuroplastic change process are:

  • Chemical change: these are short-term changes in brain chemistry in response to new behavior. They boost short-term memory and improve motor skills short term.
  • Structural change: new connections form, altering the brain’s structure. This boosts long-term memory and long-term improvement of motor skills.
  • Functional change: entire brain networks change, becoming more efficient in their functioning. This is when lasting behavioral change occurs.

Intentional behavior change requires weakening a strong neural connection to break the old habit. At the same time, you strengthen the new one.

This is hard because setbacks can easily knock us back into our old mental patterns and behaviors.


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The elements of behavior change

Before you start your planned stages of change, you must first understand the elements of change.

These are the factors that will either help or hinder you in achieving your desired behavior change.

Behavioral science change theory proposes different models. Each includes different elements of change. 

However, for simplicity, we can break them down into four main ones.

1. Your willingness to change

How ready are you to change your current behavior? Are you changing for yourself or someone else? 

Self-motivation is a key factor in making your new behavior stick.

2. The benefits of change

Awareness of the benefits of your target behavior will help you stay motivated. 

It will also increase your resilience and ability to overcome setbacks.

3. Your barriers to change

Are your current circumstances preventing you from changing? 

Identify any barriers to behavior change and list any possible solutions.

4. The likelihood of relapse

If you want to make lasting change, you will face obstacles and setbacks along the way.

Being aware of possible challenges will help you prepare for and overcome them.


The 6 stages of behavior change

According to the transtheoretical model of change, there are six stages of behavior change.

1. Precontemplation stage

At this stage, people are not yet aware of the negative behavior they need to change.

They don’t see their behavior as a problem and aren’t interested in getting help.

They may become defensive if someone pressures them to change. They also avoid speaking, reading, or thinking about it.

They may also absorb information about this problem from family, friends, or the media, but won’t take action until they see it as problematic.

2. Contemplation stage

At this stage, people are aware of the negative consequences or problems. But they’re not yet ready to change their unhealthy behavior.

They do start thinking about it, however. They know it’s necessary to change but aren’t ready.

They might weigh the pros and cons and whether the long-term benefits outweigh the short-term effort.

This stage can last a few days or an entire lifetime, depending on the individual.

3. Preparation or determination stage

This is the phase when a person is ready to make a change. They become committed to changing and motivated to take the necessary steps.

They read, talk, and gather information about the problem.

The preparation stage is crucial to the success of behavior change. Skipping this stage can drastically decrease your chances of success.

4. Action stage

At this stage, people use the strategies they learned in the previous phase to start a new, healthy behavior. 

This takes willpower, and there is a high risk of failure and slipping back into old behavior and habits.

It can help to avoid external temptation and set rewards for achieving intermediate goals.

The support of others is also essential at this stage.

5. Maintenance stage

In this stage, people have made progress and realized the benefits of changing. 

They understand that maintaining change will require effort, but they are aware of its value. 

They create strategies to prevent relapse until the new habit becomes familiar and natural.

6. Relapse stage

This stage is when people slip back into their old behaviors and habits. 

Relapsing is a normal part of the process of change.

The key is to identify the trigger that caused the failure and look for new and better strategies for dealing with it.

Bearing in mind the benefits of the change helps regain motivation when restarting the stages of change model.


How to change behavior

Now that you understand the elements of change and the six stages of behavior change, it’s time to put them into action.

Let’s take a look at four of the most common areas of behavior change and some behavior change interventions for each one.

1. Nutrition

If you’ve ever tried a radical change in your diet and eating habits, you know how difficult it can be. 

Instead of extreme, unsustainable changes, try introducing small changes one at a time. 

Research shows that this approach makes it easier to sustain changes over the long term.

For example, if you drink a lot of soda, try reducing your consumption to one per day for a while. Eventually, you’ll find it easier to let go of that one-soda-a-day habit.

2. Physical activity 

If you’re the kind of person who pays for a gym membership but never goes, you need to be strategic in your approach to physical activity.

For example, you can build physical activity into your daily routine with a few simple tweaks. 

Leave your car a few blocks from the office and walk the rest of the way. 

Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Get a standing desk.

But exercise is important, and these changes alone, though good, might not be enough.

To stay committed to exercise, find something you enjoy doing (yes, you have permission to cancel your gym membership).

Whether it’s a brisk walk in the woods, a round of golf, a choreographed dance routine, or even a game of Twister, it’s important to have fun while exercising.

Tracking your goals and progress and logging your activity can also help you stay motivated.

3. Medication non-adherence

According to research, 50% of chronic disease medications are not taken according to the prescription.

If you struggle with taking your prescribed medication, follow these steps:

  • Set an alarm to help you remember to take it.
  • Use a pillbox labeled with the days of the week, so you can see when you’ve taken it and when you haven’t.
  • Make a note on your phone or use a medication reminder app.

But remember, if you are having trouble taking any prescribed medication, it is always recommended to discuss it with your doctor first.

4. Insomnia

Clinicians use a form of cognitive behavioral therapy to treat patients with insomnia. It’s an intervention known as brief behavioral therapy for insomnia.

This is a four-step process that you can try to improve your sleep patterns and reduce insomnia.

  1. Keep a sleep diary for two weeks. 

Track the time you go to bed, time taken to fall asleep, how often you wake up and for how long, what time you wake up, and what time you get out of bed.

  1. Set a wake-up time

Decide what time you would like to get up and set your alarm for that time each morning.

Get out of bed when your alarm goes off, no matter what kind of night you’ve had.

  1. Limit your total time in bed

After tracking your sleep for two weeks, calculate the average number of hours you sleep per night.

Add 30 minutes to that number to calculate your total time in bed limit.

  1. Calculate your target bedtime

Subtract your total time in bed from your wake-up time to calculate your target bedtime.

Aim to go to bed at this time (and not before), as long as you are sleepy.

Increase your total time in bed by 15 to 30 minutes per week as your sleep cycle starts to regulate itself.


Lasting behavior change is possible

Behavior change isn’t easy. Be kind to yourself as you go through this process. 

If you need extra support in navigating the stages of behavior change, get in touch with BetterUp to discover how our expert coaches can help you.

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Published June 3, 2021

Erin Eatough, PhD

Sr. Insights Manager

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