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Three Important Lessons for Making Critical Life Changes

How to engage five stages of change for success

You want to change. Indeed you may need to make a critical life change. Still, you get in your own way and stumble. Maybe you know what you want to do. Maybe you know why you want to do it. Maybe you don’t know how. If you want to know how, read Dr. John Norcross’ article on a scientifically-tested way to make critical life changes. Here’s the article.

You decide to take that big step and make the personal change that you’ve so long put off. What do you do? Do you listen to Oprah’s guests who pontificate on change, walk on hot coals during a work retreat to prepare yourself to live life fully, read vague and outrageous self-help books by new age gurus, surf the unregulated web, or ask for advice from the unsuccessful? If you take these unproven paths and fail to launch the change that you want to make, or are inspired for a week and don’t maintain the change, you may feel defeated, demoralized, and confused about why you can’t just do what you want to do. You may feel anxious about trying again. Can you do better? Definitely yes!

You may have the best of intentions to change, but have adopted an unsystematic, unscientific approach to the change. That’s not your fault. We are rarely trained in the science of change. Unfortunately, we are frequently blamed by ourselves and others for not succeeding in what we may know so little about. That said, I want to yell it from the rooftops: There is an actual science out there that can help you make the change that you want to make! That is lesson number one. Now, let’s get to lesson two.

The journey of change is amazingly similar for diverse problems. People progress through identical stages for each of the fifty-plus problems now researched. For example, my colleagues and I originally studied patterns of change in overcoming addictive disorders: tobacco smoking and alcohol abuse. Early on, I was convinced that modifying an addiction was fundamentally different from treating other problems. I was wrong. The step-by-step journey to the goal is virtually the same for meeting challenges, such as overcoming substance abuse, anxiety, depression.

Here’s how people change, across virtually all behavioral problems. The journey begins with precontemplation or, as most people call it, denial. Precontemplation is the stage at which there is no intention to change the problem or obtain the goal in the foreseeable future. Most individuals in this stage are in a fog about their problems. Families, friends, neighbors, or employers, however, are often well aware that the pre-contemplators have problems. The person who fears rejection retreats into a sheltered world of computer games. The problem drinker says, I can handle my liquor.

When precontemplators decide to change, they often do so because of pressure from others. A friend tells the computer game junky that hiding from others is a crappy way to live life. An irritated employer tells the substance abuser to stop denying reality, sober up, or hit the road.

Contemplation is the stage in which people are aware that a problem exists. They are seriously thinking about overcoming it, but they have not yet made a commitment to take action. The change catalysts here are to acknowledge the problem, get ready for change, and psych yourself up. This is where you specify realistic goals and define the new you. You start counting and measuring the changes in the behavior you will modify. You think about the consequences of your problem and imagine a new life without it. At this stage, you start to harness the awareness and emotions that will propel you into action.

Preparation combines intention and baby steps toward your goal, which may be to start to develop your people and assertiveness skills, or get and stay sober. This stage is all about prepping. Build your commitment and then make your goal public—tell people about it. Pick your start day and identify people who will comprise your support team. Take a few small initial steps…and prepare for liftoff.

At some point you jump from preparing to perspiring—the work of modifying the behavior. Action is the stage in which we modify our behavior, experiences, and/or environment in order to reach the goal. Action involves the most overt changes and requires considerable commitment of time and energy. In this stage it’s essential to develop healthy alternatives to problem behaviors and build new ones. Reward yourself for a job well done. Cultivate your environment and support team to keep moving forward.

Achieving your hard-fought-for goal is wonderful, but holding onto and advancing your accomplishment entails persevering through slips and persisting for years. Maintenance is the stage in which you work to prevent relapse and consolidate the gains attained during action.

All of us are vulnerable to lapses, so you can expect to fumble on occasion. The trick is to manage slips and prevent them from snowballing into a reversion to old habits. Learn to say “No” and develop a plan for recovering after a slip. Avoid high-risk triggers, resist the urge to diverge back to the harmful path you once followed, and keep a positive outlook. Slips need not become falls. You don’t have to mimic the message in the commercial, “I’ve fallen and can’t get up.”

At this point, most people will ask something along the lines of “Well, it’s helpful that you have outlined the cycle of change and discovered the structure. But how will that help me exactly?” The answer to this question leads to lesson three.

By knowing your stage of change you can guide yourself through the often frustrating maze to success. For starters, your stage of change predicts the probability of your reaching your personal change goal. Our recent analysis of 39 published studies, involving 8,238 people with problems, demonstrated that the further along you are in the stages, the more likely you are to succeed. Moving from contemplation to action doubles your chances. Thus, how far you advance in the stages will foretell your successes or failures.

Once you can identify it, you can complete the tasks and exercises appropriate to that stage of change. This is called stage matching. For instance, if you’re already moving toward action, you won’t need the work of the contemplation and preparations stages—you’ll have already done that work. In fact, using those change catalysts can actually send you reeling backwards. What works for someone getting psyched to change will not work for someone trying to persist.

Changeology tells you what is most useful for that particular stage; what works for a person thinking about change certainly differs from someone trying to remain changed. The secret is doing the right thing at the right time. So many folks are earnestly trying but failing because they mismatch their change efforts with the stage.

Instead of blindly walking the path, let the science of change guide your efforts and let the stages give meaning and structure to your goals. Trial and error is lengthy and costly; learning from the tens of thousands of research participants and people struggling with befuddling problems, who participated in our studies, is far more efficient and effective.

For more information on using a scientifically-based approach to change, click on: Changeology

This three part series on personal change brings together basic concepts and techniques from Dr. Bill Knaus' seminal work on procrastination and change (click on Why Is Personal Change So Tough to Do?), basic concepts and techniques about how to express yourself effectively from Dr. Bob Alberti’s seminal work on assertiveness and change (click on It's Not What You Say—It's How You Say It!), and my seminal work on Changeology.

John C. Norcross, PhD, ABPP, is Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of Scranton, Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry at SUNY Upstate Medical University, a board-certified clinical psychologist in part-time practice, and the author, most recently, of Changeology: 5 Steps to Realize Your Goals and Resolutions.


Norcross, J. C. (2013). Changeology: 5 Steps to realize your goals and resolutions. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Norcross, J. C., Campbell, L. M., Grohol, J. M., Santrock, J. W., Selagea, F., & Sommer, R. (2013). Self-help that works:Resources to improve emotional health and strengthen relationships (4th ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.

Norcross, J. C., Krebs, P. M., & Prochaska, J. O. (2011). Stages of change. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 67, 143-154.

(c) John C. Norcross, PhD all rights reserved.