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Why Behaviour Change is Process and Not an Event

We all know the drill. New Year’s Eve arrives and resolutions are made, set in stone, and broken by the end of January. From quitting smoking to exercising regularly, most of us have a long list of behaviors we'd like to change. While many people can succeed with desired changes in the short term, most find themselves reverting back to original behaviours in the long term.

Anyone who has ever made and swiftly broken a New Year’s resolution, can appreciate the difficulty of behavior change. Research shows that the psychology that underlies behaviour change is complex and involves a substantial amount of time and effort. In fact, behaviour change cannot be defined as a simple changing event. Instead, it is a model involving stages of complex processes, used by each individual in order to change their habits and negative behaviours. Read on to understand the processes involved in lasting behaviour change, and why it is not simply a single event.


The 5 Stages of Behaviour Change


One of the best-known approaches to change is known as the Stages of Change Model, which reflects that behaviour change is a process and not an event.

1. Precontemplation


Behaviour change occurs as a process, as change takes place gradually and often with resistance in the early stages. When beginning the path towards behaviour change, people require a gradual progression of smaller steps toward a larger goal. Therefore first stage in the process is precontemplation, where the person tends to avoid information, discussion or even thought about change and the need for it.


2. Contemplation


The contemplation phase is the first part of the process in which the person begins to think about, or see a need for the behaviour change in question. Often prompted by an event or trigger, this phase involves the person recognising that there is a problem, and that they have the ability to fix it. The contemplation stage of behaviour change, can last months or even years, if not spurred on by further motivation.


3. Preparation


The preparation phase is an information gathering period, where some small changes are implemented to prepare for the larger behavioural change. This process is the first stage involving a firm commitment or decision to change.

The preparation stage involves ‘pre-change’ steps that bind the person to the commitment. For example, for a behaviour change involving healthy habits, the preparation stage may involve purchasing a gym membership or food delivery service.


4. Action


The fourth stage of the behavioural change process involves direct action towards accomplishing the goal. This stage involves real changes and modifications to a person’s negative behaviour patterns. Reinforcement and support are therefore extremely important throughout the action stage, in order to facilitate the longevity of the change.

It is common for people to try and skip over the previous processes and go straight to the action stage of behavioural change. However, while rushing the process can lead to short-term success, research has shown that people who avoid the previous processes, are prone to relapses and even abandoning the changes altogether. The action stage requires long term willpower, and builds upon the support and motivation obtained from the previous stages.

5. Maintenance

The maintenance stage of the model is consolidation of any behaviour changes, avoiding former behaviours and keeping up with the modified behaviour patterns. It is important to continue to avoid personal and environmental temptations when part of this phase, in order to prevent a relapse into negative patterns.

When a person finally reaches the maintenance stage, they have been through the hardest parts of the process, and come out the other side stronger and better for it. 

As the model shows, behaviour change is not simply a random event or moment. Even those who seemingly embrace change overnight, have reached their goals through a series of smaller processes. By embracing behaviour change as a process rather than event, people can be realistic about their goal, and understand that a minor relapse is not the end of the road. After all, the best things in life take time and effort.

Bio: Laura Costello is a recent graduate of a Bachelor of Law/International Relations at Latrobe University. She is passionate about the law, the power of social media, and the ability to translate her knowledge of both common and complex topics to readers across a variety of mediums, in a way that is easy to understand.