The 5 Stages of Healthy Behaviour Change

by | Nov 20, 2020 | Health Articles

Getting started with making a healthy behaviour change can be tricky, especially if we feel discouraged or don’t quite know where to begin. Today’s post covers the 5 stages of behaviour change based on the Transtheoretical Model (TTM) to help you understand yourself a little better.

Hands up if you’ve ever desired to start a new healthy habit, but your efforts flopped after a little while? We’ve all been there!

Cultivating healthy mindsets and developing new habits is the cornerstone of the health and wellness space and those of us who desire to lead healthy lifestyles. The funny thing is there’s a ton of information available to us about nutrition, fitness, and healthy habits, but how do we truly make a lasting change in our daily behaviours? How can we best get started with approaching our wellness goals?

In today’s post I’ll be covering the 5 stages of behaviour change based on the Transtheoretical Model (TTM). This is a fascinating blueprint for helping us understand how ready we are to change in the first place. Once we have a better understanding of where we’re at and where we want to go, we can formulate appropriate goals for ourselves that are much more attainable and enjoyable.

What Is Behaviour Change?

Behaviour change is the process of adopting new habits, often replacing old ones with new positive, healthy ones. It involves putting your knowledge into practice and changing a preexisting behaviour in a lasting way. A key to behaviour change success also involves maintaining it for the long-term, not just doing it for a little while.

Making healthy behaviour changes is not always straightforward or easy. It can be particularly challenging today because of the high levels of stress and demands that many of us are faced with that can deplete our resources for change. But this doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Know that you absolutely can make lasting healthy changes in your life. Let’s explore this further.

“Growth is not steady, forward, upward progression. It is instead a switchback trail, three steps forward, two back, one around the bushes, and a few simply standing, before another forward leap.”
–Dorothy Corkville Briggs

Transtheoretical Model of Change (TTM)

There are many different kinds of theories that exist to help support us on our journeys of lasting behaviour change. One of the most important is the Transtheoretical Model of Change (TTM) developed by Dr. James Prochaska. This model is based on decades of research evaluating behaviour change in a variety of areas such as quitting smoking or adopting new eating or exercising habits. TTM outlines how and when new behaviours are best adopted and why people might struggle or quit altogether.

TTM proposes that self-change is a staged process. These 5 stages of change include:

  1. Precontemplation — not ready or even considering making a change
  2. Contemplation — thinking about making a change soon
  3. Preparation — preparing for action; a plan is being made
  4. Action — taking action on a new behaviour
  5. Maintenance — maintaining a positive behaviour

When it comes to making a specific behaviour change in your life, such as improving your nutrition or physical activity, it’s really helpful to know what stage you’re in for that particular area so that you know what specific steps you can take to help you on your journey.

Keep in mind that these stages are only referring to where we’re at with a specific behaviour, not our entire selves. We can be in multiple stages simultaneously with different goals we have. It’s also important to note that the specific habits that we want to work towards should be based on our true values, wants, and needs, as opposed to doing something that we see someone else doing. I’ll be talking more about creating healthy habits beyond these 5 stages in a future post!

Let’s explore these stages further.

The 5 Stages of Behaviour Change

Precontemplation: I Won’t or I Can’t

When someone is not yet ready to form a new healthy behaviour, they typically fall into one of two categories:

  • “I won’t”: not interested in changing because they do not feel like they need to or are resisting being changed by others (e.g. friends/family pressuring them to do so)
  • “I can’t”: there’s usually some interest in change but a lack of confidence in doing so, believing it’s impossible/too difficult to achieve, or they do not have enough time

In both the above scenarios, you’re not even considering making a change let alone working toward it. If you’re in this stage, know that it’s perfectly okay. Everyone experiences this stage at different times in life, and the reasons for not changing are completely valid and beneficial for us sometimes. You can begin moving forward by focusing on the benefits of making your desired change, brainstorming any barriers or obstacles that are getting in your way, and also knowing that you absolutely can make changes if they’re what you really want.

Contemplation: I Might

This stage involves thinking about making a healthy behaviour change at some point in the future. In this stage, there’s greater awareness of the benefits of making a specific change. There’s also an awareness of any current dissatisfaction in health/wellbeing that’s being experienced, however, there’s still a sense of doubt in this stage that may be delaying the change process.

Ambivalence is a common feeling in this stage (the state of having mixed or contradictory feelings or ideas about something). It’s quite common to remain stuck in the contemplation phase for months or years, continually weighing the benefits of change vs. the effort it will take. In this stage, both pros and cons are fairly balanced, but in order for change to begin to occur, pros need to outweigh the cons.

It’s helpful in this stage to focus on values, strengths, past accomplishments related to the desired change, your vision for the future, and your strong intrinsic motivators (which come from within, and are not external such as seeking validation from others) to help create excitement with connecting the dots between where you’re at vs. where you want to go. Focus on identifying your barriers and coming up with possible solutions to them. Mindset shifts are also helpful in this stage through thinking, learning, and discovering more about the specific desired change, as opposed to actually doing anything yet. However, tiny attainable goals (such as 5 minutes of yoga instead of a 1-hour class) can help create small successes while sorting through the feelings of ambivalence in this stage.

Preparation: I Will

In this stage, ambivalence has been largely overcome. Pros are outweighing the cons of a specific behaviour change, motivation is increased, and there are plans to start taking action very soon

In this stage you have strong motivators and you know your barriers and the solutions to them. These steps are important in the preparation phase, especially if fear of failure, resistance, or ambivalence starts to creep back in. The pros of making your desired change outweigh the cons in this stage. It’s time to create some action steps and experiment with what strategies works and don’t work for you.

Formal commitments are also helpful in this stage such as scheduling what, when, and how a desired action is going to be taken.

Action: I Am

This stage is all about the doing. New behaviours are being practiced, habits are being established, and supportive relationships are being built. There’s quite a lot of concentration on this new desired behaviour, experimenting with what does and doesn’t work, and making lifestyle adjustments and refinements as needed week by week and month by month. The new behaviour is achieved gradually through small attainable steps and solutions to barriers that may pop up along the way.

Personal strengths and values are important to remember in this stage to help you stay on track, as well as creating a support system of friends, family, or new like-minded connections. Any other modes of support are helpful here. When challenging situations arise, analyze them and brainstorm ways to prevent them in future. Remember that setbacks are not failures at all, but wonderful learning opportunities.

Maintenance: I Still Am

The maintenance stage involves the new behaviour becoming automatic several months after the initial change was made. There’s a level of confidence and self-efficacy (the belief in your capabilities) that’s been reached in this stage that allows for easy maintenance of the behaviour as it’s now a habit.

At this stage you’ve been discovering new things about yourself, you’ve experienced challenges and setbacks and you know how to work through them. Remaining flexible and creative is important here to keep you engaged in your healthy behaviours.

This stage can still involve slipping back to old patterns, especially if boredom occurs. It can be helpful to set new goals related to the original behaviour change, such as trying out a new kind of exercise, learning or improving a skill, or teaching others. Being able to make adjustments as needed, including having those strategies in place when barriers arise, is a sign that the maintenance stage is well underway.

Change is a Process

Making behaviour changes is not easy, and “slipping back” to old patterns can occur at any stage. Setbacks are very normal and can be expected from time to time, but it’s key to reframe them as temporary and as learning experiences instead of failures. An all-or-nothing mentality sets the stage for guilt, shame, or feelings of inadequacy that can squash self-confidence and progress altogether.

Reconnecting with values, strengths, visions, and helpful tools and resources is always helpful, as is having self-compassion. Sometimes our goals and desires change, and it’s perfectly okay to adjust as needed!

Is there a behaviour change you’ve been wanting to make, or one that you have made that you’re proud of? Share in the comments below!

by Meghan Livingstone

Note: this post may contain affiliate links. Learn more here.

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1 Comment

  1. Jenna

    Love this – change is definitely a process, but once the habit is made it is easier to change đŸ™‚
    Jenna ♥
    Stay in touch? Life of an Earth Muffin


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Hi, I’m Meghan. I’m a Certified Holistic Nutritionist, blogger, and YouTuber with a passion for healthy, simple living. I’m here to inspire you to listen to your body, eat mindfully and wholesomely, and create a fulfilling life that’s completely unique to you.