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Are You Ready for Change? Find Out What Stage You're In

04/22/2015 12:53 pm ET | Updated Jun 22, 2015

Although circumstances may change in the blink of an eye, people change at a slower pace. Even motivated people who welcome change often encounter stumbling blocks that make transformation more complicated than they'd originally anticipated.

When two psychologists, Carlo DiClemente and James O. Prochaska, studied people who were trying to quit smoking, they discovered five stages that can be used to assess a person's readiness to make change. Their ideas about the stages of change have been applied to people who are changing a variety of habits.

Trying to change before you're ready isn't likely to be productive. For example, most New Year's resolutions don't last because people spring into action without being prepared for the work it's going to take. Forcing change based on a date on the calendar, rather than a true readiness to transform, can be a set up for failure.

These five stages of change can assess your readiness to create behavior change:

1. Precontemplation -- If you're precontemplative, you won't recognize any need to change. Other people may express concerns, but you'll deny that a problem exists. Unless someone raises your awareness of the problem, you likely won't choose to do make a change.

A doctor who says you have high cholesterol may tell you to change your diet. Unless you believe that your health really poses a risk, you aren't likely to change your eating habits.

2. Contemplation -- When you're in stage two, you will recognize the potential consequences of not changing, but you won't yet be fully committed to making a change. Instead, you'll spend some thinking about the pros and cons of staying the same, vs. changing.

You may recognize that you have a health problem, but you may be hesitant to commit to giving up the fatty foods you enjoy. Moving to the next stage requires recognition that the benefits of change outweigh the risks of staying the same.

3. Preparation -- During the preparation stage, a plan for change is established. In keeping with the diet change scenario, this is where you'd plan your menus and think about what foods you must avoid in order to change your eating habits.

Resist the urge to move through this stage too quickly. Devote plenty of time and energy into creating a good plan that will set you up for success.

4. Action -- The steps created during the preparation stage get put into place during the action stage. It's where your behavior changes begin.

If you were committed to improving your health, this is the stage where you'd start eating a healthier diet. You'd begin following through with all of the plans you created during the preparation stage.

5. Maintenance -- During this stage, it's important to monitor your progress and plan ahead for possible problems and pitfalls that could cause you to resort to your old behavior patterns. While it may be tempting to declare victory after a few successful days, a failure to plan for the future could leave you unprepared for the obstacles you'll likely encounter.

If you wanted to maintain your healthy diet, you'd need to consider potential pitfalls -- like how you're going to handle an invitation to a restaurant. Being prepared to handle challenges and recover from mistakes can help you maintain a change over the long haul.

Implementing the Stages of Change

Mentally strong people don't shy away from change -- nor do they expect immediate results. Whether you want to exercise more often, or you're hoping to become debt-free, real change happens in stages. Slow and steady progress is great -- as long as you're taking steps in the right direction.

Amy Morin is a psychotherapist and the author of 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do, a bestselling book that is being translated into more than 20 languages.