The 5 Stages of Change: Are You Ready to Change?

MIDo I need to start drinking less or am I actually ok with my current amount? I need to drink less, but not sure how. Ok I definitely need to drink less, but now I just have to lay everything out. Ok I’ve finally started to cut back and change my ways. I’ve officially stopped drinking on weekends, now I just have to maintain this lifestyle.

Each of those statements above describe a different stage of change. We’ve all thought about changing ourselves in some shape or form. Should we drink less? Should we lose weight? Should we go out more? Should we stay in more? Should we go back to school? Life doesn’t give us a 5-minute break from questioning our choices. Sometimes we know we definitely need to change, yet other times we’re a little uncertain.

Motivational Interviewing is a therapeutic approach developed by Dr. William R. Miller and Dr. Stephen Rollnick to foster intrinsic motivation within someone. And within this framework, they describe various stages of change.

  1. Pre-Contemplation
  2. Contemplation
  3. Preparation
  4. Action
  5. Maintenance

Pre-contemplation refers to those times when you’re even wondering whether you have a problem that needs to be dealt with. Do I drink too much? Do I need to lose weight? These are the questions you might ask yourself. However, as you begin to reconcile these questions, you may move into the contemplation phase where you’ve acknowledged that there is a problem and you start deciding whether you should take action. While you’re in the contemplation phase, you’re starting to weigh the pros and cons. You might be overwhelmed with all that lies ahead so you’re starting to think whether the pros outweigh the cons.

Let’s say you decide the pros are important enough to you, so you start to prepare to take action. You think what is the first step  I can take? What is the next best step I can take to move myself closer to my ultimate goal? Eventually, you begin to take action and go through the steps you laid out during your preparation. Now the hardest part is often thought of as the maintenance. You’ve heard it said that it takes 21 days to change a habit and although that might be a crude estimate, there is something to it. Change is not overnight. This is the phase where you need to monitor yourself and track your changes, as small as they may be.

Be patient with yourself because you may jump between stages. It’s completely natural. Sometimes we decide we want to lose weight and start exercising (i.e. Action phase) and then we realize how much work it actually is, so we go back to pre-contemplation and wonder whether we really need to lose the weight. We might think it’s not that bad.

Use these tools to help your loved ones decide on the change they want. Making people feel bad or forcing people to be different isn’t an effective way to get someone to change. Fostering their own mental state and supporting them in their realization of change is the most we can do. This is also the most powerful. It’s much more meaningful if the person we love realizes the change they want to make and what is best for them than it is for us to tell them. We can guide, support, and give advice, but ultimately, it is not on us to make the change or to maintain it. The change is in the hands of the person who has to deal with the consequences everyday.

So what can you do? Ask your friend or family member where they are in the thought process? What are the pros and cons for them? Therapeutically, we often ask on a scale of 1-10 how likely are you to change? Or how important is this change for you? If someone is at a 5, we don’t want to say what can you do to move it to a 10. We want to say, what can we do to get you to a 6. It’s much more manageable to get to a 6 than it is a 10. If you want someone to move from LA to New York, you first have to get them through Las Vegas.

There is some research to suggest that the timing in which you progress from one stage to the other can be predictive of your outcome. For example, people who stay in the pre-contemplation phase longer are less likely to have the change they want, than those who moved to the contemplation phase within a month.

So what stage are you at? Are you ready to move to the next stage? What is the next best step you can take?

I’ll leave you with a recent quote I read by Marilyn Ferguson,

“No one can persuade another to change. Each of us guards a gate of change that can only be opened from the inside. We cannot open the gate of another, either by argument or by emotional appeal.”

Related links:

Rubin Khoddam, Clinical Psychology PhD student at University of Southern California, founder of Psych Connection.

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Categories: Addiction Connection, Blogs by Rubin

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3 replies


  1. What do you expect out of your therapist? « Psych Connection
  2. The Psychology of Forgiveness | Psych Connection
  3. Why Judging Others is Bad for You | Psych Connection

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