In the 1970s, Dr. James Prochaska and colleagues at the University of Rhode Island developed a model on the process of changing from bad habits to good ones. They identified six stages that people go through in this process.

Generally, people don’t go through these stages in a linear fashion. People who successfully change their bad habits move forward into the next stage, then back to a previous stage, then forward to the next stage as their commitment becomes stronger. They may do this one or more times before breaking the habit once and for all.

Have you ever tried quitting a bad habit on New Year’s Day? As you probably know, that’s very difficult to do. That’s because you didn’t go through these stages. You just jumped right into breaking the habit without giving yourself the time you needed to experience each stage long enough.

By understanding these stages, you’ll have the knowledge and confidence to succeed. Let’s go through these stages one at a time so you have a clear comprehension of each one. Think about the bad habits you have today and which stage you’re in right now.

Stage 1: Denial (Pre-Contemplation)

You may be unaware there’s even a need to change. You’re thinking about other things, and changing your bad habit is the last thing on your mind. Or you acknowledge there’s a problem, but you’re not thinking about changing it anytime soon.

You make excuses or minimize any consequences of the bad habit. You observe other people and see that they’re doing the same things you are, so you don’t see a need for change. You refuse to admit that you have a serious problem. You don’t even realize you’re denying the problem. It’s just not on your radar screen to make a change. If someone confronts you about the need to change, you resist them, maybe even becoming aggressive against them.

You conveniently shift the responsibility for taking the actions of the bad habit from yourself to some “force” that’s stronger than you are. You think and say you just can’t stop doing what you’re doing. Or you may focus on your past, knowing that you tried to change this habit before and you failed. It’s no use. You’ll always be doing this.

When you want to know more about your habit and how to change it, you’re ready to go on to Stage 2.

Stage 2: Awareness

You’re beginning to understand that you have a bad habit that you need to address. You’re starting to think about the potential benefits of changing your habit and comparing it to the effort involved in trying to make the change. You know you have a problem and you want to understand it, but you don’t know what to do about it and you feel helpless in the face of such an enormous problem.

When you do imagine changing, it seems too difficult. You may talk to others quite openly about the problem, but you’re not ready to make the change. In fact, many people stay stuck in this stage for years. They’ll start to exercise “one day.” They’ll quit smoking “when the time is right.” They keep putting off taking action.

You may feel afraid that you’ll lose the life you’ve become accustomed to, no matter how risky it is. Instead of working on the problem, you worry about it.

The goals of this stage are to understand yourself better, identify the triggers that make you do activities of the bad habit, and build a commitment to make a change. Read materials that address your bad habit, noting how your life is “less than” because of it. Read about how others have successfully changed this habit and how their lives are now more successful.

Admit the things you actually like about your bad habit. Start now to keep a journal of your habit. Visualize different scenarios of the future, one in which you continue doing the bad habit and one in which you make a change.

When you’ve made the decision to change and want to work on finding solutions to your problem, you’re ready to go to Stage 3.

Stage 3: Preparation

You’ve decided to act and you’re making the appropriate plans to do so in the next month or so. You’re preparing yourself emotionally for the change. You take small steps, such as telling family or friends about the change you want to make, looking online for a group of people who are making the same change, getting books out of the library or buying books about different types of diets, looking for YouTube videos on the Internet of people exercising or buying DVDs that you can watch on television, or going outside your workplace to determine where you’ll take walks during lunchtime.

You think about how you would feel if you behaved in a healthier way. You can see yourself vividly in that more slender body or being able to jog around your block with energy to spare.

You accept responsibility for yourself and make changing your life your number one priority. You solidly believe that you can change, and you create a definite plan of action to do so.

Put your commitment in writing and record each and every step you will take to make the change, drawing on all the information you gathered in the Awareness Stage. Make sure these are achievable goals, small enough that you can put them into practice fairly easily. Arrange your environment in such a way that it’s easy to do each step.

You’re ready to make the change and you set a date to put your plan into action. Don’t set the date too far in the future. If you give yourself too much time, you run the risk of procrastinating. Set it within two weeks or so. Now you’re ready for Stage 4.

Stage 4: Action

Now that you’ve laid the proper foundation, you can focus on your new lifestyle. Your new behaviors begin to replace the old ones. You strengthen your commitment to change and fight the urges to slip back.

You stay focused on following your plan. You substitute activities related to the unhealthy habit with positive ones. You reward yourself for taking even the smallest of steps. You avoid people and situations that tempt you to go back to your old habit.

In this stage, your self-talk is crucial. The first step is to identify the thoughts you tell yourself about your bad habit. Recognize what you’re telling yourself. If your self-talk is to be effective, look at your habit from every angle. Then make a list of every area within that problem. When you create your self-talk affirmations, add a line to cover each area. What you’re doing is creating a completely new picture of yourself actually being the person you desire to be.

Change the words to describe yourself. Make your self-talk sentences in the present tense as though the desired change has already taken place. Write out these new sentences, read them, record them, listen to them, think about them, and speak them to yourself and others.

One of the most effective ways to make changes is to record your new self-talk affirmations and listen to them while you’re washing, getting ready for work, in the car on the way to work, during lunch or a break, in the car driving home, and before you go to sleep at night. This is your new life, and you have the power to think different thoughts and then take different actions!

Here’s a sampling of new self-talk affirmations to change your habits, first on dropping off weight and then on quitting cigarettes.

Self-talk affirmations for weight loss:

- I'm on the road to fitness.
- I'm dropping off weight now.
- I am feeling thinner today.
- I look and feel lighter today.
- I am filled with energy and vitality.
- I'm enjoying how I'm feeling now.
- Every cell in my body is filled with energy.
- I love the feeling of making progress.
- I love the food that makes me thin.
- I am fully nourished by the foods I eat.
- I use a smaller plate and eat smaller portions.
- I eat slowly and enjoy my food.

Self-talk affirmations for quitting smoking:

- I am a non-smoker, and I’m proud of myself.
- Being a non-smoker is easy for me.
- I enjoy having more stamina and energy, and I’m able to jog around the block.
- When I see a cigarette or think about one, I automatically hear the words “I don’t smoke anymore” and I don’t.
- I am in control of myself and everything I do.
- I do what’s best for me.
- I really enjoy being able to breathe deeply and be healthy.

This stage takes the most time and energy and may last for months. When you’ve been in this stage for at least six months, you’ll know it’s time to go on to Stage 5.

Stage 5: Maintenance

The key in this stage is to prevent a relapse. If you do relapse, you need to make a more serious commitment to changing your life.

You might relapse for several reasons. You may be overconfident and think you can have only one extra helping at the potluck or one cigarette. You may be tempted every day by opening the freezer and seeing ice cream.

Your self-talk isn’t strong enough in the direction of the new lifestyle you want. You’re still thinking that you can’t make the change or you’re imagining how wonderful it would be to eat cookies or smoke another cigarette.

Realize that even if you do relapse, it doesn’t mean that you’ve failed. You need to recognize it as soon as it happens and return to your plan. Spend time with people who behave in healthy ways. Make sure you engage in alternative activities to cope with the stress of going back to your old habit. Substitute thoughts, activities, places, people and things that could provide stimuli for the old behavior with those that are conducive to the new you. Refocus on the benefits of your new lifestyle, and put your plan back into action.

This stage can last from six months to a lifetime.

Stage 6: Termination

Now you’ve reached the end of the journey! Your problem is no longer a problem. You’re not tempted anymore, and you feel confident that you can cope with anything that comes your way. You have no fear of relapse, and your new life is consistent with healthier behavior. You’ve broken the habit forever, and you know it will never return. You enjoy your healthier lifestyle, and you see yourself living the new lifestyle every day. Nothing could make you go back to your old habit. You’re free!


Identify one bad habit you want to change. Look at each of the stages above and determine which stage you’re currently in. Then closely read the next stage since that’s the one you’ll be entering soon. Write a story about where you’ve been with this habit, which stage you’re experiencing now, and how you’ll go through the rest of the stages.

Author's Bio: 

Vivian Harte is the co-author of Self-Esteem for Dummies in the Dummies series. She has helped over 15,000 people learn and use assertiveness skills during the last 17 years. She teaches online classes on assertiveness, self-confidence, and teamwork. She has a Bachelors degree in Sociology and a Masters degree in Public Administration. She taught college classes for many years in Tucson, Arizona. She has two grown children who are both successful. She lives in Tucson with her husband, three dogs and two cats.

She offers several online courses and e-books as well as coaching, and you can find out more about these at her website Learn the skills to being more self-confident and having higher self-esteem. You can do this!