The Six Stages of Change

Most of us think of change as a simple linear process. We set a goal and we move toward it until we succeed. Research has shown, however, that change is actually a more complex and circular process. 

In his study of people who successfully quit smoking, James Prochaska identified six stages which characterize any behavioral change. Understanding these six stages of change can help you transform problem behaviors so you can more easily achieve your goals and make your good life better.

The Six Stages of Change

Prochaska not only characterized the stages of change. He also identified what you need to accomplish in each stage before you are ready to move on to the next. Here are the six stages as well as the benchmarks associated with each.


Precontemplation describes the period before you are aware that a change is necessary.  Another word for Precontemplation is denial.

In Precontemplation, you are living with a problem but refusing to acknowledge that change needs to happen. Others around you may clearly recognize that you need to change, but you insist that the situation is not so serious that you can’t handle it.

If you have known someone in Precontemplation, you may have experienced the frustration that is common among friends and family. To others the problem is clear but until the person in Precontemplation is ready to acknowledge it, they will insist that the cause of their difficulties lies elsewhere.

The prerequisite for moving to the next stage is a willingness to consider the possibility that change may be necessary. You need to recognize that the costs of maintaining the problem behavior may be greater than the costs of changing it.


Once you’ve moved out of Precontemplation, you are willing to understand the truth about the problem behavior or situation and consider the alternatives. Contemplation is the learning stage in which you gather information.

In the stage of Contemplation you examine the pros and cons of the various options available to you. You honestly assess all of the costs and benefits of allowing the situation to continue. You also look at the pluses and minuses of doing things differently. You become fully informed.

Some people go back and forth between Precontemplation and Contemplation for a while before they are ready to move ahead. You are ready to move to the next stage when, on the basis of your analysis, you embrace the need to change.


Once you have committed to bringing about a change in your life, the next step is to figure out how to do it. You plan your behavior change.

You identify your goal. You research the various ways you might achieve your goal. You enlist help.  Often people show up for coaching when they reach the Planning stage, knowing that a coach can help them clarify their goal as well as the steps they need to accomplish it.

Once you have formulated a workable plan, you are ready to move into Action.


You implement your plan in the Action phase. This phase can be seen as an experiment in which you learn which parts of your plan work and where the unforeseen obstacles lie. 

Circling between Action and Planning is an inevitable part of the change process. No plan is perfect.  It is essential to view any problems which arise as an opportunity to improve your plan.

Once your action plan is proceeding smoothly, you are ready to move into the most challenging stage of all.


Most people enter the Action stage filled with enthusiasm and excitement. There is a sense of euphoria as they begin to see positive change and experience the benefits that this change brings.

It is much more of a challenge to maintain that change. As you move further from the negative experiences created by the old behavior, it becomes easier to minimize their costs.  Temptations arise which can be difficult to resist.

Maintenance is the long haul during which old habits are being replaced by new ones.  Lapses are common during the Maintenance phase. It may be necessary to return to Planning or even to Contemplation to remedy these lapses. 

Some people who lapse in the Maintenance stage get so discouraged that they return to Precontemplation.  Don’t let this happen to you!

When you understand that change rarely proceeds in a straight line, you can recognize a lapse as a normal part of the change process and get quickly back on track.

Termination (Transformation)

Once the new habits have replaced the old, maladaptive behaviors you can consider yourself in what Prochaska labels the Termination phase.  I prefer the term Transformation.

In Transformation, the desired change has been accomplished. With the new behaviors established, you are no longer the same person. You can’t imagine going back to the old behavior patterns. You have achieved your goal.

An essential feature of this analysis is the awareness that almost no one actually marches straight through these steps one after the other. Instead, most people circle through a number of times before they achieve transformation. After some forays into learning what it would take to lose weight, you might withdraw back into Precontemplation, figuring it’s not worth the bother.  You might be doing fine with interacting calmly with your spouse, only to find yourself slipping back into yelling and screaming when they do something particularly annoying.

It’s easy to view a lapse as failure, to become discouraged or even give up. Instead, you can recognize lapses as a normal part of the change process. Notice a lapse when it occurs and use it as an opportunity for learning. Most important, don’t let a lapse become a relapse!

You will be prepared to deal with any setbacks and get quickly back on track once you are aware of the six stages and the patterns typical of the change process. This information is equally important in helping you to support someone you know who is contemplating or attempting a behavioral change.

Understanding the six stages of change will help you achieve your goals and make your good life better!  If you would like to learn more about the six stages of change, I heartily recommend Prochaska’s book, Changing for Good.