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Changing for Good

Take these six major steps toward change

Bill Ewan | May 30, 2010

One of the greatest contributions to psychology in the 20th Century came from research done at the University of Rhode Island. In a book entitled “Changing for Good,” James Prochaska, Ph.D., John Norcross, Ph.D., and Carlo DiClemente, Ph.D. describe their findings. By outlining them here briefly, I hope to help swimmers understand how they can change in the water to become faster.

Many people change life-threatening habits, such as smoking, without help from therapy or psychologists or medication. The authors looked at 40,000 people who stopped smoking. They asked them a lot of questions to find out how they were successful. In doing so they found a very simple pattern. They came to the conclusion that this pattern translates into how we decide to change just about anything in our lives, including a swim stroke. The process in our thoughts can be lightning fast, or we may get stuck for a lifetime in one of six possible stages of change. They found that everyone who needs to change something is in a particular stage between no change and making the change and going on with life.

According to the study, there are six major stages of change: precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, maintenance, recycling, and termination.

Precontemplation

This is the stage where you’re not aware that you need to change. But it can also be a stage where you don’t believe you can successfully change and have decided to avoid it.

A swimming example might be: “Coach wants me to move up and down enough to show my swimsuit in the fly every time my hands go in the water. I’ve been swimming this way for five years. He needs to go bother someone else.”

There may come a time when the swimmer begins to think about needing to change. For example, the swimmer may observe that the truly fast swimmers at swim meets show their suits on every arm entry for fly. Or the swimmer may discover by accident that with very high hips in the butterfly, it is easier to swim and go much faster.

Contemplation

With learning and awareness, we move to the next stage of change called contemplation. This is the stage where learning and education are important. We learn and become aware that we need to change something. We imagine and visualize ourselves with the change. It is a time of rehearsal and practice in our thoughts. We become more accepting of others thoughts, actions, and deeds on the subject.

A swimming example might be: “Coach is on to something! I’ve seen fast swimmers and they really stay high in the water and show their suits on the fly. Some really stick their butts out of the water. I would like to try it.”

At this stage successful changers learn that for every change there may be a temporary breakdown or slowing down in the things that are changing. There will be setbacks. A swimmer might feel like the stroke is wrong or uncomfortable because it is different. A simple change in body position in the butterfly will not necessarily feel better. The stage of contemplation is the time when we take full ownership of the situation and learn as much as possible about what it takes, how it will happen, what will prove that it is a good change, and what it will take to finally say we have succeeded at changing something.

One of the most important findings of the research was that we need to make a pros and cons list for changing. This can be done on paper or may occur in our heads. It may take several pros and cons lists over days, months, or years to get to a point where one is ready to change. Researchers found that once a pros and cons list has twice as many reasons for changing something as cons against changing it, the person is not only ready to change but is capable of it. This seemed to underlie all of the smoking habit changes of the 40,000 smokers they studied.

Preparation

This is the time when we increase learning and understanding. We may practice a little and get some feedback from others on our butterfly swimming. We may try out the changes and test the situation. But ultimately what happens in the preparation stage is that we set a date to act. You finish all preparations for actually changing the behavior. In the case of showing your suit on the butterfly, you set a date and from then on you will swim that way. You have decided and are ready, willing, and able to make the change for good.

Action

This is actively thinking about the change, changing the thing that you want to change, and getting used to the new situation. You have done whatever is necessary to succeed at the change and are now living the change. In our swimming example, you are dealing with the wishes to do the butterfly the old way, to return to what is comfortable or your habit. You are dealing with needs that were satisfied in swimming the other way.

Maintenance

If all is successful, and you spend enough time and effort, you enter a stage called maintenance. The change has become natural or automatic. The old habit of dropping the legs and dragging through the fly has gone away.

Recycling

Often we will do something called recycling. That is, you may come to the pool and find yourself at the precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, or action stage. A negative word for recycling is relapse. But it is perfectly normal and natural and is usually a necessary part of changing.

For example, during hard swims, you may be really tired, and you’re likely to forget to hold the body high in the water, and your swimsuit won’t show. Being successful has to do with how quickly you can get back to the action stage from wherever you went. That is, instead of thinking, “Boy I’m terrible. I’ll never swim the butterfly right. I’m going to just forget about staying high in the water,” encourage yourself with, “Come on. You can do it. If you don’t give up, you’ll make it.” Cheerleading and being positive does wonders for getting a change to stick.

In the case of the 40,000 smokers, it took each an average of 43 serious attempts to stop smoking forever. So the speed at which each returned to the action stage of not smoking was critical. For example if a 40-year-old smoker waits a couple of years between attempts to stop smoking, he or she may not succeed until 123 years old. That is, 43 attempts on average for success, times the number of years between attempts, plus starting age of 40. Any lack of speed in returning to the action phase explains why, to the uninformed smoker, it is easier to die than to quit smoking. If serious attempts and returns to action occur over less than a year or two, success is virtually assured.

Termination

And lastly, using our swimming example, you have made it. You will always swim the fly with your swimsuit showing every time your arms enter. It’s not an issue. You don’t think about it. It is no longer a change.

If you think about this six-stage process you may begin to understand that all human change can be seen this way. It may involve changing drinking habits, eating habits, smoking habits, betting habits. It can describe our decision to open a door, to buy a new car, to have soup for dinner, to go on a date. In some cases much of our thinking is lightning fast, in other cases we die of the thing that needed to change.

With this, I wish all of you success in changing. Change and the ways we get to change seem to unite us all as human beings. Hopefully this knowledge will move each of us to great change.

Bill Ewan, 67, swims for New England Masters and helped create the NEM video clinics. Ewan has a Ph.D. from University of California, Berkeley in linguistics and spent much of his career in speech research and working as a behavioral therapist at a psychiatric hospital.

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