Change is often a difficult, multifaceted process which requires a great deal of persistence and determination.  A part of the difficulty is that we believe that it should be a relatively straightforward and linear process.  The reality is that change often consists of a cyclic spiral pattern.  This pattern typical involves setbacks and relapses.

I have been a non-smoker for several years now.  But it was not always the case.  Indeed, I was a relatively heavy smoker.  As is common, it took several attempts to give up successfully.  The period involved was approximately a decade.  My efforts to give up smoking follow the stages described below quite well.  It is worth noting that the explanations of each stage can be applied to many problematic areas of life.

Another thing worth bearing in mind is that there can be considerable overlap between each stage.  Rarely are things so cut and dried as the various stages imply.  Instead there is often an ambiguity involved as each stage morphs into the next.

Stage 1:  Dormancy

In this stage of the change process there is no real intention or motivation to change the behaviour.   A problematic behaviour is not acknowledged as a problem.  For instance, a person who gambles and has financial difficulties because of it, may justify their behaviour as enjoyment.   At the same time, they will minimize the difficulties the problem may be causing in their life.

Regarding my smoking example, smoking was not viewed as a problematic behaviour.  It was listed in my mind as something enjoyable.  While it may have been enjoyable to some degree, the fact was that I had a history of heart troubles.  Smoking should have been the last thing on my mind.

Many difficulties are ignored until they cause enough misery and pain that we bring our attention to them.  A person with a history of poor selection of romantic partners may not recognize that the poor selection is the problem.  They may attribute the breakdown of relationships solely because of the other person.

Stage 2:  Awareness

The next stage is characterized by a growing awareness that a problem or potential problem exists.  But at the same time, there is no real intention or motivation to change.

In the smoking example, a morning cough (smokers cough) raised attention that something was not right.  But the pain and suffering caused by the smoking were not enough to motivate change.

There is often the erroneous belief that awareness or consciousness is sufficient to create lasting change.  However, awareness or consciousness is typically but the small first step in a long and involved process.

Stage 3:  Preparation

In this stage, we are preparing ourselves for an assault on the problem.  This could involve reading about the problem and finding strategies to implement to change.  Sometimes, it may be talking to other people, friends, priests, doctors etc about the problem.

A crucial factor is that the intention to change becomes firm and there is an elevated level of motivation.  We are steeling ourselves for a period of commitment and active participation in our own change process.

Before attempting to give up smoking, I would have a period where I would tell myself this would be difficult given past experiences, but that I could do it.  It was a way of preparing myself for what was to follow by convincing myself.

Stage 4:  Action

During this stage, intention and awareness translate into meaningful action.  Literally words are put into action.  For example, there is a world of difference between talking about giving up smoking and giving up.  The behaviour must stop for there to be a successful transition into non-smoking.

The same applies to many areas of life.  Change almost always involves a component of action.

Stage 5:  Maintenance

Old behaviours begin to give way to new behaviours.  The new behaviours frequently require consistent and persistence reinforcement.  Using the smoking example, it was not that there was a single moment where I gave up smoking.  It was that I gave up smoking many times per day over a period of months.  There was a willingness to stick with the process.

Change often requires a prolonged period of reinforcement.  This applies just as much to psychological phenomena as it does to something like cigarette smoking.  It is one of the reasons why change is often so difficult.  Another difficulty is that it can sometimes take many months before positive changes take hold.

 Stage 6:  Relapse

It is common for there to be relapses and setbacks along the way.  This might mean falling back to old destructive patterns and repeating non-helpful behaviours.

I had at least five major attempts at giving up smoking before I was successful.  Each time I thought that smoking had the better of me.  I would literally give up on trying to eliminate the behaviour.

However, each succussive attempt bought with it a little bit more information.  I became more familiar with the withdrawal processes and then looked for several ways to overcome it.

The implication being that we can look towards relapses and setbacks as just another step on the path.

The cycle then repeats itself, but each successive iteration of the cycle is used as a stepping stone to ultimate success.  In the end, giving up smoking was one of the easiest things I have done in my life.  But before that, there were many setbacks and relapses.


I have provided an infographic for peoples use.  It might be an effective way of remembering how the cycle typically manifests.


The Change Cycle