Growing up, I cared less about my nutrition and eating habits than paying my taxes. And I didn’t have taxes.
Pop-tarts were my go-to breakfast. My typical lunch was chicken tenders, mashed potatoes, and Gatorade in my school cafeteria. The saving grace of my diet was my mother’s home cooking every evening —a tasty, diverse Shanghainese spread of stir-fried proteins, vegetables, and rice.
In college and adulthood, without my family meals to anchor me, my poor diet continued to worsen. And I gained significant weight, not to mention frequently feeling low-energy and lethargic.
Like many of my office-going peers, one of my goals last year was to shed body fat accumulated from an inactive lifestyle.1 I quickly discovered that regularly eating healthy meals was the biggest lever I could pull. And boy, even though I succeeded in my goal (dropping 24% to 12% body fat over 6 months), the process still felt hard. Later I learned it didn’t have to be.
No matter the discipline, creating good behaviors feels tough for many of us. Exercising three times a week. Putting more savings away each month. For my career coaching clients, consistently feeling less stressed and more confident in the workplace.
In one study led by John Norcross, a psychology professor at the University of Scranton, 81% of New Years Resolutions ended unsuccessfully. The road to behavior change appears ominous and paved with failure.
What I want to show you is the opposite: behavior change done right should feel easy. If you’re swimming against the current like salmon struggling upstream to their spawning grounds, then something has gone awry.
While behavior change is certainly achievable via the brute force of willpower, that’s a painful approach and a recipe for relapse. My hope here is to share a science-backed model and tools that may help you succeed without relying entirely on willpower.
In this evidence-based guide, I want to show you that changing behavior —whether it’s related to your career, wellness, or another area of your life— is not rocket science, but a simple, practical process that you can start today.
What we’ll cover in this article:
- First, I’ll outline a model of behavior change, based on scientific research, to ground our understanding. We’ll discuss why it works as well as its criticisms.
- Second, we’ll walk through an assessment that you can use to evaluate your readiness to change.
- Third, we’ll talk about the five stages of behavior change, action items to perform in each step, and how to address possible challenges that prop up.
- By the end of this guide, you’ll be empowered with knowledge, frameworks, and tools to move towards building new, healthy habits into your lifestyle.
Let’s get started.
The Process of Behavior Change
First off, let’s briefly talk about psychology models that apply to behavior change —and how you can translate their ideas into practice.
If you go down the rabbit hole of psychology research as I do occasionally, you’ll unearth countless detailed models for explaining behavior change: Theory of Planned Behavior (TPB), Health Belief Model (HBM), and Fogg Behavior Model (FBM) —just to name a few of the more well-known alternatives.
Which Model Should You Use?
The model I want to share with you is the Transtheoretical Model (TTM), which was first introduced in the late 70’s by James Prochaska and Carlo Di Clemente, psychologists at respectively the University of Rhode Island and University of Maryland Baltimore.
Over the last 40 years, it’s grown to be one of the most commonly used methods in behavior change with the backing of thousands of empirical studies across a diverse array of applications such as smoking, weight loss, fitness, drug adherence, and stress management. A quick search on ScienceDirect shows that 1,017 peer-reviewed articles containing the term “Transtheoretical Model” were published in the last 5 years alone.
At the heart of the model are the Stages of Change, which are best visualized as a positive cycle or upward spiral:
Each stage corresponds to a different mindset and readiness to change:
- Pre-Contemplation (“I won’t” or “I can’t”): Don’t intend to take action. People in this stage may feel unmotivated or are not ready for a change.
- Contemplation (“I may”): Aware of the problem and interested in taking action, but haven’t yet committed to making a change. May have ambivalent feelings or lack of confidence.
- Preparation (“I will”): Committed to taking action. Have a plan in place to address obstacles that come up.
- Action (“I am”): Actually taking action to cause behavior change. Building consistency and getting positive feedback on their actions. Prevent possible relapse.
- Maintenance: (“I still am”): Successfully taken action to cause behavior change. Feeling more confident in their abilities. Continue to watch out for possible relapse.
By knowing which stage you fall into, you’ll have a better idea of the specific actions you can take to achieve lasting change.
Why Use This Model?
The Transtheoretical Model has a straightforward, intuitive appeal. While there are more sophisticated models out there, I have discovered few other models with the power to succinctly explain behavior patterns I observed in my own life. 2 The Stages of Change align closely with the process I currently use in my coaching practice to motivate and sustain change.
The strategy of tailoring interventions to each stage also has empirical backing. A recent meta-review of 57 studies of health behavior change programs, done by Seth Noar, a PhD at UNC-Chapel Hill, and his team, demonstrated greater impact in programs that are tailored on each of the Transtheoretical Model stages. 3
With that said, the Transtheoretical Model is not without criticism. There are claims that the model’s stage distinctions are “logically flawed” and based on “arbitrary time periods” and that its “assumptions about the psychological variables and processes causing stage progression for being rather vague”. 4 5
OK So… Now What?
As always, my goal here on my blog and in my coaching practice is to inform you, the intelligent reader, of evidence from both sides so that you can decide for yourself.
In the future, I suspect there will be further research that gives rise to a new dominant, empirical model of behavior change. However, for our purposes of applying scientific research to our personal lives, we can still make significant headway with the Transtheoretical Model.
On to the stages.
Which Stage Are You In?
You may be curious by now, which one of the Stages of Change do you fall into?
The Readiness Ruler is one tool that can be helpful for assessing your readiness can change. Answering its two questions can help you identify your starting stage:
- How important is this change for you right now? Rate yourself on a scale from 0 (not important) to 10 (very important).
- How confident are you about making this change? Rate yourself on a scale from 0 (not confident) to 10 (very confident).
Now you can match your score with the corresponding stage. Scores of 0–3 represent non-readiness to change or pre-contemplation, scores of 4–6 represent contemplation, scores of 7–8 represent preparation or action, and 9–10 represent maintenance.
Once you have a clear sense of which stage that you fit into, then you can start taking the actions to help you succeed in that stage and move on to the next.
Stage 1: Pre-Contemplation (“I Won’t” and “I Can’t”)
If you’re starting off in this stage, you’re feeling resistant to change —either because you don’t believe you have a problem or you don’t believe that change is possible.
We all know how it feels to attempt to persuade a stubborn family member or friend to exercise more or eat a healthier diet. When they’re not open to the idea of change, cajoling and prodding them rarely makes them budge —and only leaves both parties feeling more frustrated in the process.
Psychologist Carol Dweck discovered a fundamental difference between a fixed mindset vs growth mindset in her research. Her theory helps to explain the behaviors you can observe from someone in Pre-Contemplation. 6 People with a fixed mindset believe that their abilities are fixed and even permanent (i.e. the stubborn family member or friend), while people with a growth mindset believe that abilities can be developed (i.e. someone who is ready to move on to the Contemplation stage).
It often takes an alarm clock event to shift the perspective of someone in Pre-Contemplation. In my family’s case, our entire family continually warned my father of snacking on processed foods and living a sedentary lifestyle. But it wasn’t until his primary physician warned him about his high blood pressure that he jumped into action —replacing processed chips with more fruits and nuts and starting to cycle after work.
The main challenge in this stage is becoming self-aware of your inner voice and the story you’re telling yourself.
1. Ask Yourself, “What is the Reason I Feel Resistant to Change?” Try to observe your automatic reactions to this question without judging them.
We often have stories that we tell ourselves about our abilities —hidden scripts that play out in our lives and get us stuck especially at our transition points.
Are there particular stories that you’re telling yourself about your abilities? Do these hidden scripts contain limiting beliefs that are holding you back?
One story that I hear often from my tech clients is: “But I’m not technical, so I need to go back to school for a CS Masters, get more coding experience, and/or become an engineer before becoming a product manager.” While a valid concern in a STEM-driven industry, what strikes me about this mindset is that my clients are disqualifying themselves from their target role before they had even begun their search.
Product management is certainly competitive, but there is plenty of room for candidates who bring unique skillsets to the table. I tell my clients that it’s always more important to start from a position of strength —what value or gifts do you bring to the company?
Perhaps you’re deeply quantitative/analytical. Maybe you have a strong eye for design. Or you can intuitively run an entire customer development process even with blindfolds on. A company ultimately hires you for these “superpowers”, not the additional degree or mediocre technical skills.
2. Write Down Your Hidden Scripts. The next step after getting aware of the stories you’re telling yourself is to write them down and begin to see the possibilities in making a change. Interestingly enough, our mind tends to let go of these scripts more easily once we can put them into words.
So break out the journal you have in your closet, wipe off the dust, and open it to a clean page. There, try answering the following prompts:7
- What stories do you tell yourself about your abilities and talents?
- Are these stories limiting you in some capacity, do they give you the license to do something extraordinary, or somewhere in between?
- What reoccurring themes emerge from your stories about your relationships with others? If someone told you those same themes, how would you view that person?
- Are you able to identify any old patterns you would like to adjust?
- How would a small adjustment impact your work and life?
- Could you build a daily habit that might support making any adjustments that would serve you?
Now that you’ve identified your hidden scripts, how they’re influencing your life, and possible adjustments you could make, you’re ready for the Contemplation stage.
Stage 2: Contemplation (“I May”)
In this stage, you know you want to make a change. You’re feeling more open to taking action but aren’t sure where to start. Perhaps you even have a goal in mind but are still feeling anxious, ambivalent, or unmotivated.
1. Pick a Target Behavior. First let’s pick out one of the ideas from the wishes and New Years Resolutions sloshing around in your mind, then write it down as your target behavior.
Start off by asking yourself, “What is your behavior you’d like to work on?”
Your answer may be structured like this: “I intend to _________” (e.g. “I intend to turn off my work laptop and stop working work no later than 6PM each day.”)
2. Start Very Small. Now that you have behavior in mind, the key is breaking it down into a tiny action as a starting point.8
Maybe you want to start a new daily reading habit. Assuming you’re starting with little or no reading habit, your target behavior shouldn’t something ambitious like “read 100 pages of a book every day.” That’s like asking a novice runner to start running 10K races every day.
Instead, start with a bite-sized version. “Read 1 sentence in a book every day.”
Why start so small?
As we’ve seen from the New Year’s Resolution research, the most difficult part of adopting behavior is staying consistent. While large behaviors are more difficult to maintain, erode confidence, and get you stuck in a negative feedback loop, small behaviors are easier to sustain for the long-term, build up your confidence, and fuel your momentum via a positive feedback loop.
Picking the right-sized behaviors to start with dramatically improves your ability to stay consistent with your new behavior. And from there, you can build up and tack on more behaviors towards your goals.
2. Replace Bad Habits With Good Habits. Neuroscientist Elliot Berkman stated that “it’s much easier to start doing something new than to stop doing something habitual without a replacement behavior.”
What this means is that if you’re attempting to kick a bad habit such as smoking or eating junk food, then always incorporate a replacement behavior to stave off the risk of relapse down the road. Several years ago when I was in the midst of my coffee addiction —gulping down three to four cups a day— what helped me ultimately ween myself off the brown nectar was replacing it with tea and sparkling water.
3. Connect With Your Values. Aligning your target behavior with your core values is one of the keys to unlocking greater motivation. When the winds of societal opinion or shiny objects in the distance cause you to veer off course, values are the steadfast compass that steers your ship back towards your destination.
How do you discover your core values?
- Taproot’s Values Exercise is a good option and takes only 10 minutes to be effective.
- VIA Character Strength Survey is another free assessment, with empirical research showing a correlation between its results and respondents’ job satisfaction.
Doing a values exercise was game-changing for me personally, along with numerous clients and colleagues that I’ve shared the tool with.
During one of my roles, the exercise helped me realize that curiosity and freedom were amongst my top values while achievement and security were amongst my lowest values. This discovery made it a no-brainer for me to shift my attention from running yet another revenue-generating initiative to exploring another area of the business that I felt curious about but never engaged with due to its lower business opportunity. After doing so, it wasn’t long before I started feeling less stressed and happier in the office.
4. Envision What Success Looks Like. Another tactic for bolstering motivation is priming yourself by engrossing all your senses in visualizing your outcome.
When my job search clients feel stuck, I’ll sometimes ask them to close their eyes and imagine they went to bed, got a full 8 hours of sleep, and then woke up the next morning as if they have already succeeded in their goal. What do they do during this day? How do they feel?
Not only is this exercise fun and energizing, but I have noticed it also helps my clients get more clarity when deciding between pathways because they become more aware of the activities in their day that spark joy and excitement.
One client, let’s call him David, was a mechanical engineer deciding between two internal transfer opportunities. When he visualized and walked me through his ideal workday, he quickly realized that one of the roles he was picking from would put him into a repetitive, boring schedule that was opposite of the autonomy and excitement he sought in his next role. Not surprisingly, he declined the offer and picked the other, more adventurous role.
5. Seek Out the Help of a Coach or Mentor. Having someone beside you during the Contemplation stage as support and a sounding board can be helpful and elucidating. Particularly if they are on the same journey as you but just a little farther along, so that they can empathize with your hopes, dreams, fears, and challenges.
Stage 3: Preparation (“I Will”)
Now that you’ve written down the desired behavior, it’s time to create a concrete plan for how you’ll achieve the goal.
Your plan should take into account specific details of what, when, and how. Identify and break down larger chunks into lots of small, actionable steps. (e.g. “After I leave the office each day, I will put my work laptop in my cabinet and then turn off notifications on Slack and email barring emergency messages which will get automatically re-rerouted to my phone as a call.”)
The critical idea for this step is that your plan should be designed to reduce the barriers to performing this behavior, as much as possible.
1. Plan For Obstacles Using WOOP (Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan). We all encounter obstacles on our paths, but not all of us prepare sufficiently for them. Those of us who do, tend to overcome and go on to create lasting behavior change, according to decades-old research.
How does WOOP work exactly?
WOOP is based on Implementation Intention, a psychological strategy that forces actors to confront how they will address obstacles that get in their way. Let’s take a look at the Obstacle and Plan steps, which are most relevant to us in the Preparation stage:
Obstacle: What is your main obstacle? What is it within you that holds you back from fulfilling your wish?
(e.g. “My manager continually reschedules the professional development 1:1 meetings I invite her to, due to a conflicting leadership team meeting.”)
Plan: Create a plan. What can you do to overcome your obstacle? Identify one action you can take or one thought you can think to overcome your obstacle. Make the following plan for yourself: “If… (obstacle), then I will … (action or thought).
(e.g. “If my manager, reschedules my professional development 1:1 meeting again in the future, then I will propose three alternative times slots that her calendar shows availability during the same or following week.”)
Think of each obstacle that may come up on your journey, and repeat the Obstacle and Plan steps for each one, until you feel like you’ve sufficiently covered your bases.
2. Redirect Your Energy From Future Ambitions to Present Behaviors. Each time you notice yourself focusing more on your big, juicy dream rather than on the small steps you outlined in the Contemplation stage, try to gently shift your attention back to your current behavior and the small steps directly in front of you.
The small steps are much less alluring than our fantastical dreams, but the latter can easily turn sour in a behavior change process because it can feel out of our reach, demotivating us.
Our aim here is to be pragmatic. By focusing on what’s right in front of you, it’ll make it easier to overcome obstacles, stay consistent, and keep your motivation high.
During my fat loss program, what helped the most wasn’t setting an audacious goal, but staying focused on my next meal or two. I rarely thought farther ahead than necessity dictated. Meal planning kind of turned into this game with myself and dare I say, I even had fun challenging myself to find healthier, yet still tasty substitutes for foods that were formerly on my lunch plate.
Stage 4: Action (“I Am”)
You’re well on your way! Being in this stage means that you’ve committed to change and have already started taking action towards it.
This means you’ve started going to the gym three days a week, eating healthy meals daily, and disconnecting from work completely every weekday evening. Maybe you’ve even been consistently practicing your new behavior for a couple of months now. Everything is smooth sailing, and all is good right?
Not so fast. The Action stage is actually where many people fall off the tracks because staying consistent is challenging. While you’re taking action, remember to implement the if/then statements you created in the last stage. And do the following techniques to sustain your new behavior and avoid relapse.
1. Celebrate Each Victory! Our brains are primed to repeat behaviors with rewards, so it’s both fun and important that you celebrate after each small step that you take towards behavior change.
Your celebration can be as simple as doing a thumbs up or shouting a positive exclamation like “Nice!” or “Alright!”. It can even be more elaborate, like doing a short dance. The act itself doesn’t matter as long as you get joy and satisfaction from your celebration.
Plan out how you’ll celebrate, even if that feels silly at first.
For example, I’m trying to build a habit of flossing my teeth every morning, and what I like to do after completing the task is look in the mirror and shout “YES” while fist-pumping both hands in the air. While this celebration makes me feel good, I know it won’t be for everyone. Find out what works for you.
2. Forgive Yourself For Dropping the Ball. Let’s be honest with ourselves. We all drop the ball sometimes on our journey towards long-term behavior change.
Fortunately, science is on our side. One study led by Phillippa Lally, a PhD research fellow at the University of College London, showed that temporary setbacks made no difference in long-term habit formation.9 In other words, if you miss doing your behavior once in a while, that’s OK. Be kind to yourself and get back on the horse.
3. Defeat Your Negative Thoughts. The biggest enemy on our behavior change journey is often ourselves. In particular, our inner critical voice.
David Burns, a psychotherapist at the Stanford University School of Medicine, coined the term ‘cognitive distortions‘ to describe inaccurate thoughts that reinforce our negative emotions. This type of thinking can sound rational and logical, but really only keeps us feeling bad about ourselves. 10 Common cognitive distortions include:
All-or-nothing thinking: You restrict possibilities and options to only two choices: yes or no (all or nothing). (perfectionists like me suffer from this one particularly acutely)
Overgeneralization: You view a single, negative event as a continuing and neverending pattern of defeat.
Negative Mental filter: You dwell mostly on the negatives and generally ignore the positives.
Jumping to conclusions:
A. Mind-reading: You assume that people are reacting negatively to you without any objective evidence.
B. Fortune-Telling: You predict that things will turn out badly without any objective evidence.
Pay careful attention to your inner stream-of-consciousness and see if you can spot any of these negative thought patterns.
For example, you might notice your inner critic calling you a fraud, or perhaps questioning your decision-making abilities. You might get overwhelmed by dropping the ball once or twice during the process and feel like you failed.
For all these situations and more, use Dr. Burn’s Daily Mood Journal11 as a starting point for combating these cognitive distortions:
- Pull out the Daily Mood Journal whenever you get stuck on a negative thought.
- In the left-hand most column, enter your automatic thought (e.g. “My presentation didn’t ‘wow’ anyone in the room, so it was a total failure.”) and next to it, write what % you believe in this thought (“80%”).
- Then In the “Distortions” column, label your thought as one of the 10 cognitive distortions (“All-or-nothing thinking”).
- Next in the “Positive Thinking” column, write down a truthful piece of evidence that discredits your automatic thought (“Kenneth sent me an e-mail following the presentation telling me he liked our insights, so it couldn’t have been a total failure.”) and next to it, write down what % you believe in this thought (“90%”).
- Finally, in the “% belief after” column, write down how much you still believe in your automatic thought (“30%”).
Now that you’re equipped with tools to beat back your negative thoughts, you’ll be able to sustain your new behavior for much longer without relapse.
4. Check-In With Yourself. Carve out at least one hour each week, if not more, to reset and reflect. Switching gears from always being on-the-go is very important because it is so easy to get sucked into the vortex of busyness and lose awareness of why you decided to start this behavior change journey in the first place.
What I’ve found helpful is to do a brief morning journal, writing down what I intend to do for the day. It takes only 5 minutes and helps me feel grounded.
Stage 5: Maintenance (“I Still Am”)
You have been taking action for several months, and your new behavior is slowly getting integrated into your lifestyle. In other words, you’ve created a new habit in your life and are probably enjoying the fruits of making a change. Congratulations!
With that said, your behavior change journey is not over yet. Like the Action stage, the Maintenance stage is still a place where people are at risk for relapse. Prochaska and DiClemente found that approximately 15% of still people relapse during Maintenance and go back to the Precontemplation stage. Fortunately, 85% eventually move back towards the Action stage.
During this stage, it’s important to avoid feelings of anxiety, procrastination, and stress that may put you at risk of burnout and derail your progress.
1. Identify Your Stressors. What are the peoples, places, and situations that seem to trigger a stressful reaction for you?
For example, it may be that when you’re working late on an assignment, you feel overwhelmed and a drowning sensation. Or perhaps it’s when you have an upcoming presentation, your nerves are causing you to feel paralyzed by anxiety.
Once you have a list of stressors, you can create coping strategies for each item on the list.
2. Bust Through Your Stress. While everyone’s stressors and reasons for burn-out are different, there are general actions you can do for taking control of your stress:
- Assess how much time you’re spending on work vs other parts of your life. Is this proportion what you expected? Is this desired?
- Create time and space each week for personal reflection and your emotional recovery. Make it a ritual.
- Learn how to say “no” and protect your time — Often our stressors are created when we take on more than we can handle. Get familiar with the experience of turning down requests, so that you benefit.
- Reach out to friends, loved ones, and your community for support.
On the flip-side of the coin, below are some actions you can take to build your motivation and confidence.
3. Reconnect With Your Values. You’ve performed this exercise to bolster your motivation in the Preparation stage, but it’s also effective for staying energized in the Maintenance stage. Think about (and visualize!) the initial reasons that drove you to make a change in the first place.
It could be as simple as just wanting to look good, or deeper like wanting to do more purposeful work. Tap into this reservoir of energy within you whenever you feel worried or anxious. You’ll be surprised how quickly it can get you back on your feet.
2. Learn and Iterate. Go back to the target behavior you set initially and refine it based on your new starting point. Continue to challenge yourself and update your target behaviors whenever you make incremental progress. You’ll notice your confidence building as you walk along the never-ending journey of continual self-improvement.
3. Make Friends On Your Journey. Seek out others who are also trying to make a change in their lives. Form a Facebook group or message thread. Talk to each other for emotional support, accountability and ideating new paths forward.
Behavior change is one of the most thrilling journeys that you can go on.
Yes, it’s true that using the Transtheoretical Model and process outlined here you can make transformations to your physical health, career progress, social skills, and really any aspect of your life.
However, the most meaningful reward is how much you learn and discover about yourself along the way. The behavior change journey has plenty of surprises, twists, and turns, but it’s also one of the surest ways I’ve discovered to building confidence, overcoming obstacles, and even breaking boundaries of what you’ve thought was possible for yourself.
The challenges are also real —you’ll be forced to confront your inner voices and the hidden scripts you’ve been telling yourself. You’ll have to learn to say “no” and take stress and anxiety head-on.
Nonetheless, I hope this article has shown you that the benefits of behavior change are noble, worthwhile, and attainable. They are yours for the taking. Time to get started.
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- Being confined to a chair every day, no matter how ergonomic, was detrimental to my body composition.
- The Fogg Behavior Model, which I’ll share in a future post, is another personally relevant model that is intuitive, actionable, and well-researched.
- The study also demonstrated a greater impact in programs that are tailored to the concepts of pros and cons, self-efficacy, processes of change than those that do not.
- “Time for a change: putting the Transtheoretical (Stages of Change) Model to rest” by Robert West, Professor of Health Psychology at University College of London, is a fascinating editorial perspective of the downsides of the model.
- A systematic review of smoking cessation programs published under the Cochrane Collaboration in 2010 showed that “stage-based self-help interventions (expert systems and/or tailored materials) and individual counseling were neither more nor less effective than their non-stage-based equivalents.”
- Kudos to Carol Dweck for her research and insights on this topic, which I’ve learned a lot from.
- Thank you Writing Through Life and the Hudson Institute for providing the inspiration behind these prompts.
- Kudos to Professor BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits for providing the initial inspiration for this strategy.
- The flip side of her research is that it showed that habits take longer to form than commonly thought (21 days). On average, it takes more than 2 months before a new behavior becomes automatic.
- He elaborates on cognitive distortions in his best-selling book, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, which I personally found to be transformative and helpful.
- The companion guide, Feeling Good Handbook, contains numerous other helpful exercises that you can try independently.
Love how thorough and helpful this is, Dexter! I’m sure folks would be lucky to receive your coaching.
Thanks for your kind words Ted!