The Science Behind How You Can Actually Change Your Behavior

Now that it’s February, it’s a good time to evaluate how those New Year’s resolutions are coming along. If you’re like the majority of people who set those goals year after year with the best intentions only to make it a couple of days, or maybe weeks, this article is for you. There’s a scientific reason you haven’t stuck to your resolution. When changing behaviors, jumping into action rarely works.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for setting goals and behavior change — provided it’s done systematically. Perhaps you want to change how you react toward your spouse or your children. Maybe you want to be more proactive and procrastinate less. Is there a business idea you’ve been thinking about but haven’t been able to actually start? Your spouse says they want to stop doing XYZ, but they keep on doing XYZ. Why is that?

The model is called the Transtheoretical Model of Change (Prochaska & DiClemente, 1983; Prochaska, DiClemente, & Norcross, 1992). Developed in the early 80’s, it posits that there are five Stages of Change (though we often don’t experience them in order.)

5 Stages of Change

  1. Precontemplation: in this stage, you’re not thinking you have a problem, so changing is not on your radar screen.Other people may want you to change, but it’s not something you see as important right now. In this stage, people may characterize you as being in denial about the problem.
  2. Contemplation: ambivalence characterizes this stage.You know there’s an issue, but you haven’t decided what you want to do about it. For example, you may know your anxiety is an issue, but, given what’s involved in the treatment, you’re not sure you can commit to what it takes.
  3. Preparation: you’ve decided to make the change and taking steps to get ready.You may be reading about the treatment model, listening to podcasts, going to therapy, mobilizing a support system and letting them know what you’re doing, so they can be involved as needed.
  4. Action: now is when you start working on changing your behavior. The action stage requires repetition and consistency, repetition and consistency, repetition and consistency. It’s completely normal to have moments when you forget. The important thing is not to let that be carte blanche for an entire bad day. Just because you slip up once (or twice) doesn’t mean your entire day is shot. You’ll have another opportunity to get back on track with your new behavior. For example, let’s say you’re working on not seeking reassurance from your partner, but you slip and text them. No problem. The next time you want to reach out, because you’re feeling uncomfortable (which I’m guessing will happen within the hour of the slip), you have another opportunity to practice not texting or calling. If another opportunity doesn’t organically present itself, make one. Learning to not completely give up because of a small mistake is a very powerful lesson.
  5. Maintenance: this is what it takes to keep the new behavior going. Think about what challenges and obstacles you need to anticipate. How can you establish cues, so you remember your new behavior until it gets wired: reminders in your phone, notes around your house, an accountability partner, etc.

The model accounts for lapses and relapse, because they’re normal and to be expected. A lapse is a slip, and a relapse is a pattern of slips. They can happen at any time, and you can reenter the process at any point without going back to the beginning. What I’d like you to focus on is not necessarily that they happened but how you respond to them. Do you berate yourself for something that’s expected or do you acknowledge it, and figure out how to engage in your new behavior as soon as you have the opportunity? Think about which one moves you toward what you want and which response moves you away from what you ultimately want.

Earlier I said that jumping into action doesn’t work. That’s because most people are really in the contemplation stage even though they think they’re in the action stage. If you’re truly in the contemplation stage, honor it, and think about the pros and cons of actually making the change.

Ask yourself questions like

  • What would you have to give up to change (be realistic)?
  • What would it take? really take? (likely being uncomfortable in some way)?
  • Are you really able to do it (in terms of time, space in your emotional parking lot, energy) to commit to it?

Changing a behavior is a process, and it’s going to take a while. Knowing these stages can hopefully help ease some of your frustrations, because you’ll be able to honestly assess where you’re at. It can also help you see maybe where someone else is at, so you can better align your expectations.

Moving through these stages is essential for real change to happen. We must be willing to be uncomfortable, we must stay true to the reasons we want to change (our why), and we must consistently repeat the new behavior. John C Norcross, author of Changeology: 5 Steps to Realizing Your Goals and Resolutions (I haven’t read his book, but I’ve heard him speak), talks about needing at least 90 days of behavior change in order for a new behavior to take root. In his research, he found that 75% of people only stick with the behavior change for one week. One week!

I often tell clients motivation is just the tip of the iceberg. To change requires discipline, consistency, and faith in the process.