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Time for a Positive Change

written by John Yeager 11 August 2010

John M. Yeager, Ed.D, MAPP, is Director of the Center for Character Excellence at The Culver Academies in Culver, Indiana. John consults with Dave Shearon, and Sherri Fisher at www.FlourishingSchools.com, an organization that integrates best practices in education with cutting edge Positive Psychology research. He co-authored the recently published book, Smart Strengths: Building Character, Resilience and Relationships in Youth. Full bio.

John's articles are here.

Change2 picI know that it’s time for a cool change
Now that my life is so prearranged
I know that it’s hard for a cool
Cool, cool change

~ Little River Band

Have you ever observed how people try to change their behavior and become increasingly frustrated while they keep on doing the same thing over and over – like Ground Hog Day?

Stages of Change

Spirals of change

Spirals of change

It’s no easy task to change an individual’s behavior. James Prochaska and Carlo DiClemente, pioneer researchers in the area of health behavior change, have illustrated the complexity of undertaking change through their Transtheoretical Model of Change.

Based on decades of research on certain health behaviors, Prochaska and DiClemente claim that people go through predictable stages in the change process: precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, maintenance and termination. The model has a great number of helpful implications. Consider, for example, the frustration we often feel when an individual seems to lack motivation for change, or when that person’s progress is slow. Prochaska and DiClemente’s model assures us that people may have actually begun to change, even when there is no outward sign of change.  We’ve studied this model previously in PPND articles about mental health and change, exercise and change, social support during change, and on focus.  The model:

• Pre-contemplation – not even thinking about making a change
• Contemplation – thinking about making a change
• Preparation – an intention to make a change
• Action – making the change over a period of six months
• Maintenance – ensuring that the new behavior continues – being attentive to relapses
• Termination – extinguishing the old behavior

Processes of Change

Spirals of time in change

Spirals of time in change

Prochaska and DiClemente prepare us for the story of change –that it can be a spiral and that there are specific processes that support an individual in moving through each stage.

Usually, there are certain experiential events including consciousness-raising experiences, dramatic relief, and emotional arousal that nudge someone to the next level.  Take, for example, the life of the resident “keeper of the nightmare” – a term coined by Terrence Deal. This person is continually pessimistic and is in the pre-contemplation stage – “I am as happy as I want to be.” There is no compelling reason to change.

However, when the pre-contemplator is provided with a consciousness raising experience, such as a diagnosed health concern or a major shift in a significant relationship, he or she may be more inclined to see the world differently. (Be aware that there are a variety of other factors that may impede change in the person – i.e. clinical diagnosis).  When the person has found something that makes sense and inspires belief, he or she is in the contemplation stage. He or she is thinking about making a change. However, some people become chronic contemplators, paralyzed and ambivalent to moving beyond contemplation.

Moving from the pre-contemplation to the preparation phase, the processes is more behavioral in nature – commitment, stimulus control and helping relationships.  When a person enters the preparation stage, he or she focuses on a plan that eventually leads to taking action. Action is where people exhibit the change – usually for six months, until they are ready to go into the maintenance stage and eventually extinguish the old behavior in the termination phase.

We all have different psychological accounting systems that nudge us in the direction of making changes. Sometimes there are lapses, re-lapses, and collapses in the quest of change, and this is all part of the spiral of change.  Then one moves again from pre-contemplation up the food chain of change.

Change through Deliberate Practice?

Spiral of pencils, signifying specific steps to make change

Spiral of pencils, signifying specific steps to make change

Sometimes, it’s also helpful to have techniques to move through the change.  People who have developed their character strengths can call on a foundation of well-formed habits in aspiring to move through the stages of change–especially from preparation through maintenance. People can continually stretch their abilities through deliberate practice–focused and effortful rehearsal. Deliberate practice requires a good degree of patience and perseverance. More often than not, the initial process of improvement, guided by practice, requires that people be willing to make choices different from what they feel like doing in the moment.

People who are committed to making change learn that one of the most significant sources of both difficulty and joy comes from the ability to rise to the challenge–they don’t back down from momentary lapses in motivation. The ability to stretch beyond one’s perceived ability or desire and to continue is contingent on asking, “What is the right action–what needs to be done at this time to make change.” And with this effort also comes the joy and satisfaction of the process. Amy Baltzell, a sport psychologist and faculty member in the counseling department at Boston University’s School of Education, claims: “When the body and mind adapt to higher demands, the adaptation leads, inevitably, to a heightened sense of engagement and enjoyment, a ‘dog-with-a-bone’ type of satisfaction.”

Decisional Balance

When people realize that the benefits outweigh the liabilities (or vice-versa) of certain behaviors, there tends to be a shift in behavior. Like water over a stone, the stages and processes of change are good benchmarks in helping people transform themselves.


Prochaska, J. O., Norcross, J. C. & Diclemente, C. C. (1994). Changing for Good: A Revolutionary Six-Stage Program for Overcoming Bad Habits and Moving Your Life Positively Forward. New York: HarperCollins.

Spiral in nature courtesy of brewbooks
Spiral in time courtesy of Robbert van der Steeg
Spiral of pencils courtesy of procsilas

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Dean 11 August 2010 - 11:56 am

From your article, it is obvious that change is a process. It seems that a great coach or teacher is one who can inspire a change in consciousness that moves a person out of pre-contemplation.

Kirstine Vergara 11 August 2010 - 2:07 pm

This article is timely as I have been preparing to make a change. My job in an advertising agency requires constant overtime, while my role as a mother and a wife demands unconditional attention to the needs of my family. For the past months I’ve been contemplating on quitting my job or spending time with my child during his formative years. I don’t want to give up my job yet, but I also want to be there for my son. Anyway, I still haven’t decided yet, but I know I’ll soon be making the change that would definitely be a life defining moment for me. 🙂

“Sometimes it’s the smallest decisions that can change your life forever”

John Yeagerf 13 August 2010 - 2:49 pm

Dean: Yes. Teachers and coaches have great opportunities to help young people navigate change.


John Yeager 13 August 2010 - 2:50 pm

Kristine: I am glad that practically understanding the stages and processes of change has been helpful for you. Good luck in the process!


Paul Ray 9 September 2010 - 1:58 pm

This was an interesting article, but I am not sure that I fully understand the difference between the “maintenance” stage compared to the “termination” stage if what distinguishes them is a six month period of successful or unsuccessful attempts at change. If the unwanted behavior returns after one or two years, did that person ever experience the “termination” stage or was that a setback in a prolonged “maintenance” stage? I am comparing the stages of change to an alcoholic, who is eternally condemned to alcoholism long after the physical addition is gone and even after years of sobriety. In their case, “termination” is never achieved since they are in a constant state of maintenance. Comparably, if an ordinary, undesirable, behavioral relapse occurs, such as harmful office gossip, after several years of change, was the termination stage ever achieved? One other quick question: Is the heightened sense of engagement and enjoyment that follows the process a short lived euphoria or does it translate into a deeper sense of wellbeing?

Kathryn Britton 10 September 2010 - 5:26 pm

These are just my thoughts — but I think the difference between the Maintenance and Termination Stages is whether ongoing effort is required to keep the new habit in place. As long as it, then the person is in Maintenance. For example, some people build exercise habits where it’s hard for them NOT to exercise. Perhaps they are in the Termination Stage. Others may have standard routines that take them to the gym regularly, but at some level, they are still pushing themselves to exercise. In this case, perhaps its partly a matter of extrinsic versus intrinsic motivation whether the behavior continues on its own.

I suspect that there is always a possibility of cycling back to earlier stages — even from termination to maintenance — if something happens to disrupt the habit. For example, a regular, intrinsically motivated exerciser might break a leg. After the recovery is over, it might require effort to get back in the exercise habit.

As for whether termination was ever achieved if the person lapses, does it matter? Models are imperfect representations of reality, which can be very messy.


oz 11 September 2010 - 3:03 am

Paul – the transtheoretical model of change is often criticised because it is an overly simplistic representation of change – primarily it’s linear model. Interestingly it has never really been tested.

Tamatha 27 September 2010 - 11:52 am

Hi Paul! The line of termination is never clear. We are continuously in a constant state of change with many factors that can influence us. Momentary termination could be a useful term here. 😉 It’s working thru those changes and adapting that is key. To answer your question here is my thought. Both a short lived euphoria and a deeper sense of wellbeing could be experienced, all depends on the situation and the individual. You have that sense of accomplishment that you overcame a difficult obstacle and the euphoria sets in but daily life resumes and focus is diverted but then at some time you are reminded of this triumph and as a result could have a much deeper sense of wellbeing. I think revisting this victory is important as it can also give you the courage to maintain the change when you may start feeling unmotivated and overwhelmed. Celebrate even the small victories. Enjoy them in that very moment of occurence and revisit them many times afterwards to experience lasting effects.

Tamatha 27 September 2010 - 12:33 pm

“More often than not, the initial process of improvement, guided by practice, requires that people be willing to make choices different from what they feel like doing in the moment.” This is so true! We must be aware of these feelings to have a conscious thought of ‘I know I feel like distracting myself with another phone call to my friend but I really should stop procrastinating and just take the time to finish this paper.’ 😉 Once we know what we are doing (recognizing our behavior patterns) then we can redirect our actions. It takes discipline and routine but it can happen.

“People who are committed to making a change learn that one of the most significant sources of both difficulty and joy comes from the ability to rise to the challenge–they don’t back down from momentary lapses in motivation.” I can relate to this as I work thru my procrastination tendencies. Returning to the paper example above, I know that once I do focus on that paper I feel good in the moment of writing it. I am thinking ‘Ok, I am doing this. I didn’t want to but here I am and soon I will be finished. Hmmm it wasn’t that bad afterall.’ I then realize that the procrastination and the guilt associated with not completing the task was so much more stressful than the actual writing of the paper.

Because I rose to the challenge, pushing my limits of comfort and staying disciplined, I begin to experience that euphoria. My adaptation during this process allowed me to acheieve this heightened sense of engagement and enjoyment. Afterwards, when the paper is finished, I just soar. I feel empowered and ready for another challenge. I think ‘That wasn’t so bad. . . what else do you have?’

Tamatha 27 September 2010 - 11:09 pm

When an individual realizes the benefits outweigh the liabilities they then take action to change. Yes to this I can relate. But if this element is missing or not recognized in certain situations and a decision must be made what could be another catalyst or method for chronic contemplators? Some people are so paralyzed by making the ‘wrong’ choice that they end up taking no action at all.


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