Ian Cleary

5 Stages of Change

September 16, 2015IanInspirational & General Interest, Lightning Process, NeuroplasticityComments Off on 5 Stages of Change

Why is making change effortless for some people yet for others it seems impossible? This has been one of the driving questions that has influenced my work for many years.

The Lightning Process training programme is a tool to make change. People who take the training are signing up to learn how to change their body and their mind. They need to be focused and committed, ready to learn and take action. As part of their training people get very used to stepping back and noticing what is going on in their body and their mind in real time. What our brains or bodies do unconsciously can be an incredible strength or our greatest obstacle. So stepping back and seeing from a broader perspective is a really useful component of making change as it allows us to respond appropriately rather then historically.

However when people are busy making change they don’t often step back just that little bit further still to think about the change process itself – noticing themselves while they are noticing themselves. That becomes part of my work in guiding people through challenges but it can be useful for everyone to do get that broader perspective.

To step right back and observe change from that broader perspective can give insight into why we are struggling and what we can do to make change easier.


We tend to see change in a simplistic way. You have a problem. You do something. You have changed.  But change is never a single step process. There are 5 stages that people go through in the change process. Understanding this can be useful in making change and just as importantly – maintaining change.


At this stage people are not looking to change.

It is often seen as an inactive phase but that isn’t the case. It can be a very active phase. People ARE actively doing things that keep them in this state, but the actions and thought processes are unconscious.

They may not see they have a problem or do not believe that change is possible. They can be discouraging or skeptical of those who have successfully changed or negative about their own ability to change. That’s active. They make sense of others’ success by looking at the difference in circumstances or challenges that make change impossible for them. That’s also active.

Pre-contemplators will often underestimate the value of change and overestimate the challenges and problems that come with change. They may also downplay / deny the magnitude of the problem. Again that’s all an active process.

They will actively select information or people that support their viewpoints.

It is a very, very active stage. It’s just that the activity is helping keep people at this stage.

A large emotional trigger or event can move people out of this stage. For example the diagnosis of lung cancer may be enough for people to move out of this stage to change their smoking behaviour.

 I sum this stage up with the phrase – “I can’t”.

2. Contemplation

At this stage people are contemplating the bigger picture and paying more attention to those who have succeeded. They are weighing up the consequences of changing versus the consequences of not changing. “Can I do it? Will it be worth it? How bad is the problem really? Could I get away with doing nothing?”

The beliefs they held onto in the previous stage are being actively challenged.

Contemplators can be ambivalent and put off taking action indefinitely.  However there can be an internal tension in thinking change is possible and not doing anything about it, so eventually people tend to go either back to the previous stage or take action towards change.

I sum this stage up with – “CAN I?”

3. Preparation

Normally this stage has a very short time frame. People make a decision to change and begin to think more about the future after change. Their focus shifts to the benefits of change which creates an emotional charge and a focus towards the next steps. At this stage people will start to take little steps towards change like telling others about their decision to take action or taking some symbolic step to mark the decision to change.

I sum this stage up with – “I’m Going to!”

4. Action

This is the stage that people are very familiar with because it is the most visable stage. It is obvious a critical stage but the preceding stages are just as important. If someone is forced into action without going through the previous stages they will often struggle.  The action stage can be broken down into stages as well but generally successful change requires consistency and effort. This stage requires a commitment to stay focused and work actively at making changes. Creating new habits requires this.

People at this stage can still be ambivalent and lack consistency which will have then soon reverting backwards.

Summed up with – “I AM CHANGING”


5. Maintenance

This is a critical stage and often missed or misunderstood. Without this critical stage people can revert back/relapse into old ways. They can make incredible changes but revert,  sometimes very quickly, to previous stages. They may even move right back to pre-contemplative stage – negative about their ability to change or negative about the method that didn’t work.

Conscious change often requires self-motivation and ongoing actions so this stage requires actively focusing on the benefits of change rather than the effort required to maintain change.

To successfully stay in the maintenance stage people put in place ritauls, checks and new habits that will ensure any move backwards is spotted and acted on quickly. They will put in place life style, environmental and social changes to make it easier to maintain and harder to slip back. These checks then become automatic so that maintenance becomes effortless and self-correcting.

Importantly, stressful situations will often have people reverting to old ways as they loose focus and commitment. So staying in this stage often requires people to anticipate future challenges or potential set backs and plan for them.



From a neurological perspective, as we change our brain changes and adapts to the new current situation. Neural pathways are formed and developed. The longer someone stays in any stage the more the brain adapts to THAT stage. As people move to the next stage, old neural connections that were developed in the previous stage become unformed in a process known as neural pruning. The old gives way to the new. The longer someone stays in any stage the more effortless it becomes. You can therefore become ‘stuck’ in any stage so active input is then required to shift up to the next stage.

While change can be quick, maintaining change takes ongoing focus.

Lapse or relapse?

We never fully loose all previous neural connections. The echos of the past will be part of us. Our life journey is encoded in our brain. Neural pruning never fully erases our past which can be a blessing or a curse.  This makes the maintainance stage so critical.

It also explains how people ‘fall back’ into the past.

Change is fluid both forwards and backwards. Relapses are common AND can be really very important and useful. People can learn from them and be better prepared for action and maintenance in the future.

For addictions people are often reassured that a lapse is a useful slip up when followed by a lesson and commitment then a quick return to action or maintenance stage. The experience allows a person to put into place things to avoid fiture lapses. A very valuable and useful failure!

A lapse is a short slip followed by a quick return. A relapse is a full return to the original state. It can still be a very valuable failure if a lesson learnt and action taken. Obviously stopping a lapse from becoming a relapse can save a lot of time and disappointment.

The awareness that lapses are common can help a small lapse becoming a relapse.  Some people respond poorly to these lapses in what is sometimes known as the ‘WTF’ effect. I lapse in my diet by eating a TimTam. The diet has failed so (“WTF”) I might as well eat a pack. Firing up the old neurology of the past and we slide down the stages like a life game of snakes and ladders.

When does it end?

After a period of time in the maintenance stage, people who have changed their behaviours, environment, values and beliefs tend to have a shift in their identity. They have changed their beliefs about themself and will identify with the change at a deep level. They will use statements like – I am a non-smoker, I am a chilled person, I am a healthy person, I am a confident person, I am a  strong resilient person.

But the change process never actually really ends. Even when people have successfully attained and maintained a certain level of change, further change may be still possible. Take for example someone who has successfully made incredible changes. At some point they reach a plateau. At this point they may move into a new form of the pre-contemplation stage – thinking that this is as far as they can get, that there is no problem with the current level etc. They may stay in the pre-contemplation stage or they may move up through the stages again to make further change.

And of course we are never just changing one thing. Our lives are filled with changes, all at various stages. We may be at the maintenance phase for one thing but very much in the pre-contemplation phase in another.

Where are you in the ‘I can’t phase’? Where are you in the maintenance stage and the changes you made are now effortless? Where have you plateaued in changes and become pre-contemplative.

You will of course be maintaining lots of great change right now – effortlessly without even thinking about it. Imagine what is would be like to have that same ease with the things you currently think you ‘can’t’ change?

Understanding where you are in the familiar stages of change can be a really useful insight into making change and keeping change.

Even just recognizing that ‘I can’t’ is just the first of 5 steps can be empowering. It doesn’t have to be the end of the story.

So when you hear yourself say “I can’t” – Don’t worry. It might just a phase you are going through.


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