The Science of Behavior Change: How to Reset Your Habits

We all want to have good habits. In a perfect world, we’d be fully in control of our wants and needs. We’d get up extra early, work out, eat our vegetables, and floss every time without fail. We wouldn’t need to worry about changing our behavior because there’d be no behaviors we’d need to change!

Unfortunately, life is nowhere near that simple. We give into our short-sighted desires at the expense of our long-term goals. We slam the snooze button some (or most) mornings. We eat tubs of ice cream in the middle of the night when no one but the TV is watching. All of us do things that seem to make no sense with incredible consistency. Behavioral economist Dan Ariely calls human behavior “predictably irrational” for just this reason.

So what do we do? Behavioral scientists have put a lot of thought and research into the most effective ways to help people alter their behavior. Currently, the most popular model of behavior change is called The Transtheoretical Model (TTM).

What is The Transtheoretical Model of Behavior Change?

TTM is made up of five Stages of Change that people must undergo to successfully change a behavior. What makes TTM unique from other models is that it acknowledges that change is a process, not a singular event. TTM is also unique in that it incorporates theoretical concepts from multiple scientific fields (hence the “Transtheoretical”).

What are the Five Stages of Change?

Everybody who undergoes a behavior change goes through each of the Stages of Change, consciously or unconsciously. The pace is different for everyone. Some people need more time in certain stages than others. Others relapse and regress to earlier stages. Part of what makes TTM so effective is that it not only anticipates these obstacles, it’s built around helping to manage them.

The Five Stages are:

Precontemplation

People in the precontemplation stage aren’t ready to change and likely won’t be for several months. They may not know enough about the change they need to make. Others may have tried and failed to change before and have given up on themselves. Precontemplators are seen as unmotivated or unwilling to change.

Contemplation

When people enter the Contemplation stage, they’re getting ready to change, though it still may take a few months to actually act upon it. Contemplators have begun to understand the pros of changing and may even believe they outweigh the cons. It’s not uncommon for people to get stuck in this phase, trapped by the process of weighing pros and cons.

Preparation

It isn’t until people enter the Preparation stage that talk of taking action actually begins. In fact, people in this stage may already have taken some action on their own. They have joined a gym, spoken to a counselor, or have at least begun researching these things. People in the Preparation stage are finally ready to change and will benefit the most from action-oriented programs.

Action

The Action stage is the first measurable stage of behavior change. In this stage, people have taken a specific and explicit action to alter their behavior. This can mean beginning an exercise regimen or actively reducing/eliminating cigarette consumption. This stage also takes time and regressing to earlier stages is common.

Maintenance

Maintenance is the final Stage of Change. During Maintenance, people have been living with their altered behavior for some time and are confident in their ability to keep up these changes. Maintenance is all about preventing relapse and people can spend years in this stage. Researchers believe it takes about 5 years for the risk of relapse to drop significantly.

Applying the Model

Behavior change is hard. Scientists estimate that almost half of our everyday actions are unconscious habits. A lot of the “bad” things we do–smoke cigarettes, each junk food, go to bed late–we do without even thinking about it.

Thinking about it is the first step. Take a magnifying glass to your behaviors and ask yourself why you do the things you do. Do your behaviors benefit you? Would changing them benefit you more?

According to TTM, whether someone will successfully change their behavior or not can be predicted by three factors:

Decisional Balance: Our ability to weigh the pros and cons of a behavior change

Self-Efficacy: Our self-confidence about our ability to change

Processes of Change: The means used to move between the Stages of Change

When we have good decisional balance, believe in ourselves, and use positive processes of change, we’re much more likely to succeed in changing our behavior. We also become better-equipped to resist temptation, which prevents relapse.

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