In a recent post, I talked at length about the “Stages of Change,” an effective research-based approach outlining a series of five steps that people go through when attempting to change many problematic behaviors, such as losing weight, stopping smoking, quitting drugs and alcohol, and reducing stress, anxiety, or depression.

To recap, the five stages of change are: 1) Precontemplation – not ready for change; 2) Contemplation – getting ready for change; 3) Preparation – ready for change; 4) Action – working actively on change; 5) Maintenance – maintaining progress and managing slips.

Source: stanciuc/CanStockPhoto

While understanding these stages is vitally important for navigating any personal journey of change, it’s also critical to know and employ some of the specific strategies that can help you move effectively through the stages on the way to achieving your ultimate goal.

In his excellent book, Changeology: 5 Steps to Realizing Your Goals and Resolutions, psychologist John Norcross, Ph.D., describes in detail how to systematically work through the stages of change (Contemplation through Maintenance) to achieve your personal behavior change goals. He also outlines nine “catalysts,” specific strategies you can use to navigate through the stages of change more efficiently.

Let’s review each of these nine strategies now, along with examples of specific techniques you might use for each one. Also, I will describe how each strategy is most effective in one or more of the five specific stages of change. When the strategy is used within the recommended stages, one’s odds for eventual success are greatly increased. If the strategy is employed during the other (not recommended) stages, they will not be as effective, and positive change may even be delayed or significantly reduced.

1) Tracking Progress 

Useful in all of the stages of change, tracking progress involves keeping a record of your progress toward your specific behavior change goal. For example, if you are stopping smoking, you might first track the number of cigarettes you smoke per day as you gradually reduce the number. Then you could continue to track the number of days you remain smoke-free. Tracking provides several advantages, including keeping you focused on your goal, providing tangible feedback about your progress (or lack thereof), and it’s very rewarding to see yourself moving slowly but surely in the right direction.

2) Committing

Also useful in all of the stages, committing includes becoming aware of new alternatives for positive change and then taking concrete actions to move toward those new options. You can increase your commitment by making a promise to yourself to change, and then make the even more powerful commitment of telling others who can support you about your goal. You could also join a support group with people pursuing similar goals and you can create a daily slogan or affirmations to use repeatedly to re-affirm your commitment.

3) Raising Awareness

Primarily employed in Contemplation, Preparation, and Action, this strategy involves becoming more aware of the causes and consequences of your problematic behaviors, plus learning options for resolving these behaviors. You can raise your awareness through many routes such as seeking factual information about your problem, or by asking for feedback about your behavior from friends, family, or professionals. After digesting this new information, take some time to re-evaluate yourself and begin to think about the pros and cons of changing the behavior in question.

4) Arousing Emotions

Used in Contemplation, Preparation, and Action, when we mobilize our emotions along with increased awareness, we are much more likely to take effective action. Some ways to increase our emotional arousal include exposing ourselves to others with similar challenges, either in person or through relevant books or movies. You can also consider the longer-term negative consequences of not changing our behavior, vividly imagine the many positive benefits of changing, or write a brief narrative about your happy future as a changed person.

5) Helping Relationships

Useful in all stages, but primarily employed in Action and Maintenance, helping relationships or social support is vital to help you achieve your goals. With a solid support system of friends, family, professional advisors or even online groups, you can receive regular feedback and advice, have someone help hold you accountable to your stated plan, and have someone there to assist you when you are struggling or starting to have a crisis.

6) Rewarding

Primarily used in Action and Maintenance, this strategy draws from the principle of reinforcement, as behaviors which are rewarded are more likely to be continued. You can develop lots of creative ways to reward yourself for making progress toward your goals by incorporating frequent fun activities, hobbies, pleasant social interactions with family or friends, positive self-talk or celebrations into your action plan.

7) Countering

Most often used in Action and Maintenance, this catalyst looks at substituting healthy behaviors for unhealthy ones. This can be done in many different ways, by eating healthy snacks instead of donuts, getting more physical activity to fight the “couch potato” syndrome, taking time out for meditation to reduce anxiety, replacing negative thinking with more realistic thoughts, or taking a walk instead of lashing out in anger when upset. Behavior change takes time so the process of countering won’t become automatic overnight, but it will get easier with more practice and as your confidence grows.

8) Controlling the Environment

Also used in Action and Maintenance, this strategy involves making modifications to your environment to make it easier for you to achieve the positive behaviors you are working towards. This could include removing sweets, cigarettes, drugs and alcohol from your home, staying away from people, places, and things that are triggers for problematic behaviors, and adding reminders and signs to help keep you on track with the new behaviors you are adopting.

9) Managing Slips

Largely an issue during Maintenance, this strategy addresses the issue of relapse, or reverting to the problematic behavior you are trying to reduce or eliminate. When you make a slip, re-engage with some of the other strategies we have discussed above, such as countering, rewards, environmental control, or helping relationships to get back into productive action. Analyze the slip and then fine-tune your plan to increase your chances for a more successful outcome on your next attempt at change.

These nine strategies are proven and effective for helping you navigate the often challenging process of personal behavior change. Give them a try and see which ones work best for you.

Copyright David Susman 2018


Norcross, J. C. (2012) Changeology: 5 Steps to Realizing Your Goals and Resolutions. New York: Simon & Schuster. 

You are reading

The Recovery Coach

9 Proven Strategies to Help You Change Problematic Behaviors

Effective tips to reach your personal goals.

Are You Ready for Change?

Understand the science behind changing difficult behaviors.