Image from Wikimedia Commons

Fill in the blank: “I really want to __________ (e.g., pay off my debt, save more money, make larger contributions to my retirement account), but I seem to be stuck.”

When it comes to making an important change to our behavior, we’ve all gotten stuck before. We think to ourselves, “I just can’t find the motivation,” as if motivation is something that is hiding from us, if only we would look under the couch cushions or in the back of the refrigerator. Off we go on a quest to find this elusive quality.

Researchers who have studied the process of personal change have discovered that saying “I can’t seem to get motivated” is really another way of saying “I am not ready for change.”

James Prochaska, John Norcross, and Carlo DiClemente designed a six-stage model of readiness for change (the transtheoretical model). It describes the steps that people go through when they are making a change effort.

The most important idea of the model is that you have to know what stage of readiness you are in for the problem at hand. Then, you can match the proper change strategies, tasks, challenges, or “homework” to your present stage.

If an individual has the feeling of being stuck, chances are good that he or she is in Stage 2 of the model.  Stage 2 is known as the “contemplation stage.”

In Stage 2, a person feels pulled strongly in two different directions. On the one hand, he can name several of the potential benefits of change. On the other hand, he can name several reasons why he does not want to change. In this situation, procrastination and feelings of ambivalence are common.

Consider this example: John is thinking about getting rid of his cable service as a way to cut down on monthly expenses. He makes a list of reasons why he can eliminate cable: (1) he’d have more money to put in his savings; (2) it would ease the monthly struggle of figuring out how to cover all of the bills; and (3) too much TV is bad for your brain, anyway.

Then, John makes a list of reasons why he isn’t ready to give up the cable: (1) Monday night football; (2) Dancing With the Stars; and (3) keeping up with everyone else in his neighborhood, all of whom seem to have cable TV.

When the list-making is complete, he realizes that the two sides balance themselves out perfectly, and he is left hovering between the two choices. It feels like torture to try to make a decision, and so he chooses to put it off.

It’s really not that John “can’t find motivation.” It is more that he is not ready for change, because he has not yet completed the task of Stage 2: to resolve the ambivalence.

The best visual image that represents the contemplation stage is that of a balance (like the picture above). Imagine that one pan holds the “pros of change,” while the other pan holds the “cons of change.” From day to day or even moment to moment, the pans swing back and forth. First one side is weighted more heavily than the other, but then the balance shifts the other direction.

You can only move past the contemplation stage when you do something that will forever make the “pros” weigh more than the “cons.”

In the next post, I’ll present some thoughts about what does NOT work to shift the balance. Then, the following week, I’ll list some strategies that DO work.

In the meantime, send your examples! What does Stage 2 feel like to you?