How People Change People who are successful at changing their behavior go through five distinct stages. Each has its own set of behaviors and tasks. The stages are:

  • precontemplation
  • contemplation
  • preparation
  • action
  • maintenance

The stages have been compared to stepping on stones to cross a stream - you can't skip any. You have to step on each one to make it to the other side.

Precontemplation. You don't think anything you're doing is wrong, so why change it? You can move out of this stage by examining yourself honestly to see how you feel physically and emotionally about having high cholesterol. Is it really okay for you to continue ignoring your condition? Next, you should start to educate yourself about what could happen if you don't do anything about your cholesterol levels.

Contemplation. You think that perhaps you might have a problem, so you consider changing your way of thinking, feeling, or behaving. You can move along from this stage by admitting that you are at high risk, but realizing that you have the power to lower it. You can gain this confidence by thinking of other times when you were able to do something you didn't think you could do. You can also congratulate yourself for admitting that you have a problem.

Preparation. You take steps to get ready to make some changes in the next month. During this stage, you can start thinking about and planning for different ways you might change your shopping, cooking, and eating. You might also start investigating different exercise programs to see which ones you think you could stick with. It's also important to pay attention to your current habits to try and figure out why you have been avoiding taking care of your health.

Action. You start a new behavior or do something to change your environment or experience. This stage may last from 1 day to 6 months. During this stage, you should feel very proud of yourself and give yourself rewards for having changed. You have taken a very big step forward. However, you should line up your support and recognize that it takes conscious effort to stay at this stage. If you slip up once or twice with your eating, or you slack off from exercise for a few days, forgive yourself and get right back to your healthy routines.

Maintenance. After 6 months in the action stage, you are pretty secure in your new behavior and feel confident that you can keep it up. Your healthy lifestyle changes are now a major part of your everyday life. Still, you understand that relapse is possible, so you develop a plan for situations that might make you return to your old behaviors.

For you to succeed at changing your behavior, it's essential that you are ready to make changes. Too many people leap into action before they have taken the time to contemplate and prepare. At the same time, you don't want to get stuck in a stage. For instance, you could spend too much time contemplating and understanding your problem and never move on to taking action. People who are successful at changing themselves typically go through all five steps.

Even once you've moved into action, there may be times when you do not feel things are going well. Relapse, or going back to an earlier stage, is extremely likely. As a matter of fact, most people must go through the five stages of change several times before they succeed. Let's say you have been doing very well with your diet and exercise program, and then you go away on vacation. You're eating out all the time and you feel too lazy to exercise. So you stray from your plan for just a few days. When you get back to your normal routine, it's too much trouble to make yourself eat right and exercise. It seems impossible that just a little while ago, you were so concerned with changing your behavior. Why even try when it's much easier to do what you used to do?

At this point, you could even go back to precontemplation or contemplation.

What is key is that you have a relapse plan ready for just such a time. You need to have interventions in place that will help you get back on track, such as the support of friends and family, or a membership in a gym or a market near you that carries fresh fruits and vegetables. You have to keep renewing your commitment to change even when it seems hardest.

People who have succeeded at making positive changes often use their period of relapse as a time to refocus. If you fall back into old habits, this is the time to:

  • figure out why you slipped
  • think about ways to combat the feelings and events that made you relapse
  • make a conscious effort to get ready to make changes again

You can look at these times as simply part of the process that helps you move toward success instead of as a personal failure. You may even need to start the cycle over again and learn from the past mistakes that caused you to relapse. But understanding that this time is helping move you toward success may make the change process easier for you.