Why behaviour change takes time

and why you need to be kind to yourself on the way

kicking bad habits

If you’ve ever tried to kick a bad habit and replace it with a good one – or you know someone who has – you’ll know it isn’t easy.

Yes, there are plenty of products that promise to help us with various unhealthy habits, but we need to check for evidence, (with our doctor, if appropriate) that these items work, before spending good money on them.

This Insight is not about another ‘quick fix’ product. It’s about what actually works when we need big behavioural changes and about the one thing we often forget to prescribe for ourselves.

A little bit of time

The evidence is that we, typically, go through six stages of change to stop a bad habit.

That, at least, is the finding of James Prochaska (PhD) John Norcross (PhD) and Carlo DiClemente (PhD) in their acclaimed book ‘Changing for Good: A revolutionary six stage program for overcoming bad habits and moving your life positively forward.’

You can find that book listed with some of my other favourites here and I urge you to buy a copy, if this subject interests you. 

There’s a lot more to this book than the ideas I outline here.

The six stages of change

The six stages of change, identified by these experts, are as follows:


This first stage simply recognises the fact that before any big change journey, we’re not thinking about changing our behaviour.

We may not even be aware that we have a problem, whilst those around us might be well aware of it.


In this stage, we start to realise that we might have a problem and start to consider the benefits of making a change.


By this stage, we’ve accepted the need for change and we’re ready to start on it.

We may even have taken some small steps towards that desired change – like a first (perhaps failed) attempt at giving up smoking.


Here we’re fully engaged in making the change and we’re actively replacing the bad habit with a better one.


By this point, we’re on our way to making the change permanent.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it?

It’s not, of course and even at this stage, we’ll have to guard against situations that could tempt us to revert to our old ways – and undo some of our good efforts.

Notice I said some there? Well, this is a critically important point because we need to avoid overreacting to small setbacks on our behavioural change mission.

An all or nothing and confrontational approach to behavioural change – whether with others or ourselves – will almost certainly be counterproductive – a fact nicely summarised in this Scientific American article on Why Dr Phil and Dr Laura won’t solve your problems  (Scientific American Mind, September/October 2010).

Or, if you’re OK with a bit of  ‘adult language’, in this extremely funny excerpt from The Sopranos

All or nothing thinking is seldom good for our mood, as we saw here and can drive us to give up on a goal, after a single mistake.

Sadly, this is also a very common behavioural trap that most of us fall into until we know better. The evidence is here in this fascinating BBC documentary on dieting

I do hope you’ll check this one out.

Brault. Taking a step back

The other point to bear in mind is that, whilst everyone’s situation is different, it can take six months or more to reach this ‘maintenance’ stage.

So, again, don’t expect results overnight.


By this point, your goal is achieved.

For example, you’ve kicked a smoking / unhealthy eating habit and feel no temptation to restart, even during periods of stress.

What I like about this model

Most of us will recognise this pattern, whether in a challenge that we (or someone we care about) faced to give up smoking or cut down drinking or eating.

I smoked from a very young age until I was 28 and it really wasn’t easy to kick that habit!

This model of personal change is realistic. It takes account of our readiness to act rather than ‘forcing’ change on us too quickly.

The evidence is that we often reject fast or forced change.

We need time to contemplate our behaviours and develop our own desire for change.

I often described this concept to my children as the ‘reverse Newton laws’ that apply to human interactions.

We can push an inanimate object in any direction and it will obey Newtons laws of motion. The harder you push it, the faster it will travel – provided that it isn’t ‘fixed’ to the floor 😉

However, with people, that law works in reverse. The more we try to force ‘people’ to do something – the harder they push back against us and, very often, they’ll move in the opposite direction.

Can we apply this in our parenting?

If you’re a parent you’ll already know that parenting can be challenging at the best of times.

We simply can’t always take a non-directing approach. Some lessons (like eating well, crossing the road or learning to drive a car) are best not learned by trial and error!

Instead, we need to shift between ‘directing’ and ‘empowering’ our children over time and depending on the situation – as with a good leadership model we explored here.

When our children are younger, we have a lot to teach them about the risks they face in the world – and balancing the need for direction with giving your children the ‘freedom’ they crave is never easy, especially as they get into their teenage years 😉

I’m not aware that anyone has yet written the perfect manual for parenting teenagers – and I certainly don’t claim to have all the secrets either.

However, if you’re a parent, and as we’re on the subject, you may be interested in these 20 ideas for helping teenagers achieve more

As a parent, I certainly did my best to teach my three boys about risks where I could and they thanked me for those, seldom welcome, lessons by giving me the nickname of ‘safety man’ … a label they attached with glee at every opportunity.

What’s funny is how nowadays I get lectured by them on what I need to do – to minimise the risks to my health.

Have you ever noticed how roles reverse as your children grow up?

What do they lecture me on?

Well, for starters, I’m told about the risks of sitting at a desk for hours at a time writing. So, I’d better bring this Insight to a close and go for a walk.

Summing up

All models of behaviour change have their limitations and this ‘stages of change’ model is no exception.

However, if we know the basics of this model – and we accept that big behaviour changes often take time – we give ourselves a much better chance of success.

Let me know your thoughts – in the comments below

Thanks for dropping in


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