We’ve probably all heard that it takes 21 day to develop a new habit. But the reality is, the length of time it takes to develop good habits is much longer*. If we think we can change in 21 days, we’re setting ourselves up for failure.
Two psychologists and researchers, James Prochaska and Carlo DiClemente, describe six stages people go through when making a change or developing a new, good habit. This information offers hope—it validates that 21 days isn’t the norm.
Think of a new good habit you’d like to develop. With that it mind, read through each stage and the tips to move you from one stage to the next.
1. Precontemplation: People in this stage haven't begun to think about change. They may not realize they have a problem, they may not know change is possible, or they may have given up hope. You might hear someone in this stage saying:
“This is just how I am.”
“I don't have a problem.”
“What's the point?”
Tips for this stage:
- Recognize you may feel safe in this stage—you may not be happy, but it’s familiar.
- Develop greater awareness of how the problem is preventing you from living the life you want to live.
- If you’ve tried to overcome your problem before and feel like you’ve failed, don’t give up on yourself. Most people who are successful “changers” have tried many times before they succeed.
- Cultivate hope. Realize that precontemplation is a predictable part of the change cycle. It doesn’t mean you’ve failed.
2. Contemplation: People in this stage are ready to acknowledge they have a problem; however, they’re unsure how to proceed. You might hear someone in this stage saying:
"I want to change, but I don't know how."
"I don't know if I'm ready yet."
"I feel stuck."
Tips for this stage:
- Visualize your life if you don’t make the change or develop the new, good habit you’re considering. What will your life be like in one year if you’re still struggling the way you are now?
- Learn all you can about your problem you’re trying to break or the new habit you're trying to ad into your life.
- Avoid analyzing too much, never making the move from thought to deed.
3. Preparation: In this stage, someone has made the decision to change, but hasn’t worked out all the details yet. You might hear someone in this stage saying:
"I'm not going to let this control me any longer."
"I'm going to do something about my problems."
"I know I can overcome this."
Tips for this stage:
- Write out a list of the benefits of overcoming your problem or developing this new good habits. Carry this list with you and read it often.
- Realize that once you move into action, you'll need to do about extra time and enjoy energy to carry out your plan. Make any necessary attachments adjustments to your schedule.
- Set a date for when you will institute your plan of action. To capitalize on the high-energy level that typically occurs at this point in the change process, make the date sooner rather than later.
- Write out your plan. If it's in writing, you're more likely to follow it. It doesn't have to be long or complicated.
4. Action: Most people equate change with doing something, and that's what the action stage is all about. It involves the nuts and bolts work of overcoming a problem.
5. Maintenance: In maintenance, changes made in the action stage are consolidated. The task of this stage is to make sure change lasts.
6. Termination: In the termination stage, there is essentially no longer a problem. Changes made are completely integrated into your life. Many people never reach the stage, and that's okay since some problems don't easily allow for a full "termination." For example, many therapists in the field of substance abuse believe that one never fully recovers from alcoholism.
Tips for all of the stages:
Don't rush yourself. You may be inpatient with yourself to "hurry up and change." But if you push too hard, the frightened, ambivalent part of yourself will likely rebel and sabotage your efforts.
Remember, there's no right or wrong timetable – no perfect way to change. Wherever you are in the process is exactly where you need to be.
Allow yourself time to go at your own pace through each of the stages of change.
Give yourself credit for the steps you take, regardless of how small they might seem to you. Each and every step – even baby steps – brings you closer to your goal of developing a new, good habit.
Get support. Don't try to go it alone. Enlist the help of a friend, therapist, or even an online group. I just joined an e-course, The 100 Day Promise, that offers a supportive community and expert guidance from coach Sandy Amorim.
You don't have to go in a straight line. More typically, they cycle through the stages of change several times. You may make significant progress while in the action stage, only to have stress set you back, leaving you in the contemplation stage once again. Remember, this is normal.
So what's the bottom line? Don't rush through the stages and don't worry if you recycle through the stages. Thankfully, slow and steady progress – even with a few set that sprinkled in – works just fine.
* How Long Does It Actually Take to Form a New Habit? (Backed by Science) A great piece in the Huffington Post details research about how long developing a new habit actually takes.
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I am the co-author of Dying of Embarrassment, Painfully Shy, and Nurturing the Shy Child. Dying of Embarrassment: Help for Social Anxiety & Phobia was found to be one of the most useful and scientifically grounded self-help books in a research study published in Professional Psychology, Research and Practice. I’ve also been featured in the award-winning PBS documentary, Afraid of People. Greg and I also co-authored Illuminating the Heart: Steps Toward a More Spiritual Marriage.