If you want to lead a good and fulfilling life, you have to constantly improve yourself. This might include entering the recovery process, jogging for thirty minutes a day, or learning a new language.

As human beings, we’re very critical of ourselves. We do not want to change. Oftentimes, changes and improvements are necessary if we want to live happy, fruitful lives. Some people never get around to making those changes, though, and they continue to suffer for it.

If you’re suffering from a substance abuse problem, learning about the five phases of change might help you evaluate where you are in life and take steps to make positive choices.

Note that everyone experiences the five stages of change– not just addicts. Whenever a person embarks upon a new goal or mission, especially when it comes to self-improvement, they cycle through all five of these phases.

Stage One: Denial or Precontemplation

Depending on which scholar or medical professional you ask, the first stage of change is either called denial or precontemplation.

In this stage, you’re going along with life as usual. You’re not focused on change, and you might not even be thinking about the ramifications of your patterns and habits.

From a scholarly report from Virginia Tech:

In the precontemplation stage, people are not thinking seriously about changing and are not
interested in any kind of help. People in this stage tend to defend their current bad habit(s) and do not feel it is a problem. They may be defensive in the face of other people’s efforts to pressure them to quit.

If you’re in this stage, you aren’t thinking about changing your habits. If you have a substance abuse problem, you either don’t recognize it as a problem or aren’t thinking about quitting.

Some professionals call it denial, because you’re ignoring the problem, whereas others see it as precontemplation because you have not yet truly seen yourself as someone with a problem.

If you’re reading this for yourself, you’re likely not in the precontemplation stage. If you’re reading this in regards to someone else who needs help, this is the stage they’re likely in if they have not yet admitted to having a problem or needing a change.

According to PsychCentral.com, there are four kinds of precontemplators:
Reluctant – These people either lack knowledge about the effects of their habits or do not want to think about changing. Whatever the case may be, they have not realized the scope of their problem.
Rebellious – These precontemplators have a heavy investment in their habit, whether it be alcohol, drugs, or any other harmful habit. They want to keep making their own decisions and don’t appreciate input from others.
Resigned – If you or your loved one feel lost, overwhelmed, or hopeless, you’re probably this kind of precontemplator.
Rationalizing – PsychCental.com says, “Rationalizing precontemplators have all the answers; they have plenty of reasons why drinking is not a problem, or why drinking is a problem for others but not for them.”

If you’re actively seeking this information, you’re likely not in the precontemplation stage. Still, if you’ve heard many times from your family, your friends, or your doctor that you need a change, and have not done so, you understand the precontemplation stage very well.

Moving to the Next Stage: Denial or precontemplation can last a very long time. Many people move to the next stage when a scary test result comes back from the doctor, or when a negative life event happens. Those circumstances often give you the motivation you need.

Also, practice self care and realize that “just thinking about it” is an essential part of change, and you’re already moving in the right direction.

Stage Two: Thinking About It or Contemplation

Once you enter the contemplation, or thinking about it, stage, you’re more aware of the consequences your habits can have. In this phase, you spend time thinking about your problem and consider the possibility of making a change. Still, you may be ambivalent about it.

The contemplation stage can take as little as a few weeks or as long as a lifetime, because you spend so much energy weighing the pros and cons of making that important change. You’ll contrast the positive aspects of your habit with how it is negatively affecting your life, and you might doubt the long-term benefits are better than the short-term sacrifices and potential suffering.

During this stage, you’re much more likely to heed advice and caring words from others. Still, you might remain in limbo for years during the contemplation stage if you don’t take action.

Moving to the Next Stage: If you’re in the contemplation stage, it’s time to make a risk-reward analysis. This is often a harrowing stage in the change process, so you may need the help of a professional. It’s time to think about what’s caused you to fail in the past and what you can do to change it.

Though this article pertains to fitness, Marc Perry makes some good points about the contemplation stage that apply to everyone:

I think setting very powerful, motivating goals and visualizing your results can be very helpful for someone in the contemplative stage. If you can identify new ways that making a change will benefit you, the benefits will begin to outweigh the costs. We tend to seek pleasure and avoid pain, so the more pleasure you can ascribe to making a change, the more likely you will take action and succeed.

At this point, you’re no longer against making that necessary change in your life. If you act on that impulse, you’ll move along to the next stage. If you’re afraid of leaving those patterns behind, again, it is time to consult with a professional.

Stage Three: Surrender or Preparation/Determination

In stage three, you’ve committed to making a change. You’re serious about changing your habits and behavior, and you’re serious about making better choices. We call this either the surrender stage, the preparation stage, or the determination stage.

During this stage, you’re usually heavily involved in research. You need to figure out exactly what you need to follow through with when making those positive changes in your life. You might gather information by reading, consulting with professionals, or obtaining information through videos and documentaries.

You might also be in the process of calling and researching treatment centers. You’re weighing your options and trying to find the best possible path for your own unique habit(s) and situation.

According to Virginia Tech, people often skip this stage or try to bypass it too quickly. If you move from contemplation right into action, you’re likely to fail because you’re not prepared.

You need to plan for triggers and pitfalls, and you need to find healthy solutions that work for you. Basically, you’re surrendering to the necessity of change.

If you’re actively doing research, you’re likely in this phase.

Moving to the Next Stage: If you’re in this stage, you’re probably already fairly motivated to take action. It’s important to plan, though. Catalogue your own triggers, and think realistically about your personality and what might make you fall right back into old patterns, once you start taking action.

From ExperienceLife.com:

This is when you sign up for that class, attend a support group, buy a health-club or yoga-studio membership, or bring home a pamphlet for services that will help you make the change you desire. If you’re determined to eat healthier, this might be when you start clearing the junk food out of your pantry and stocking up on wholesome stuff. Any initial steps — even if they are experimental — move you that much closer to Action and the sense of momentum that comes with it. Ask yourself: What, if anything, do I need to do to embrace this change in my life and be prepared for the obstacles I’m most likely to encounter?

Stage Four: Action or Willpower

Once you reach the action stage, you’re ready to change your habits and behavior. Most professionals say this phase lasts around six months, but it can be as short as a few hours. It is the shortest stage of change.

Essentially, once you’ve gone a few days without drinking or using, you are in this stage. During this time, you’re also more likely to seek out supportive people. That could mean a sponsor, a group, or just some concerned friends who encourage good choices.

If you have a loved one in this stage, it’s important to provide that support. Hold them accountable for their actions, but just know, support from others is an essential part of change.

This stage also brings with it the highest chance of relapse. When you’re just taking action, you’re still set in your old patterns and it’s tempting to fall back into them. You’re making an overt attempt to change, and it’s difficult, therefore, relapse is more likely. If you keep this in mind, and know it comes along with the territory, you’ll be more likely to succeed.

Moving to the Next Stage: Generally, after six months you’re ready for the transition to the next stage. It’s important to focus on what keeps you strong and motivated. Concentrate on those benefits you came up with during the earlier stages, and you’ll move on to phase five. Leverage any single technique you can to stay motivated, and also let your friends and family support you.

Find ways to integrate your new habits and behavior into your daily life. This is your life now, and it’s a change for the better. Surround yourself with people who encourage healthy choices, and stay away from old triggers.

If you’re giving support to a loved one during this phase, know it’s difficult. Be patient, but also hold them accountable and invest in the outcome of their good behavior.

Stage Five: Maintenance

When you’re in the maintenance stage, you’re actively keeping up with your new status quo. In this phase, you’re successfully avoiding the temptation to return to old behaviors. During this stage, it’s helpful to remind yourself of how much progress you’ve made.

During the maintenance phase, you should focus on acquiring new skills to deal with your life and avoid relapse. Once you’re comfortably in this stage, you’ll be able to anticipate situations that trigger old habits, and you’ll be able to adapt accordingly. This often requires advanced planning.

During maintenance, you’re actively aware of your good choices and the benefits they bring into your life. Your good choices, and your journey through the stages of change, are meaningful and have changed your life for the better. You have to be patient with yourself, however, and recognize that new patterns don’t automatically become second nature. You have to work at it.

From ExperienceLife.com

Treat obstacles and unanticipated challenges as opportunities to develop new strengths. Ward off boredom by taking on new challenges and expanding your skills. Stay on the maintenance path for two years or more, rallying even through stresses and setbacks, and you’ll reach a point where you can’t really imagine ever going back to the way things were before.

Some scholars identify a sixth stage, called termination. During termination, the desire to resume old habits is completely gone. Most people don’t reach this stage, and recovery is a lifelong journey for the vast majority of people.

The maintenance stage usually lasts at least two years.

As you go through the stages of change, you’ll naturally regress back into prior stages. Making big changes to your behavior and habits is never easy, but incredibly worth it.

Even when you feel like you’re moving backwards through the phases, know that effort on your part brings along knowledge, strength, and growth. Everyone goes through the five stages of change, and you can find the support you need along the way.