The Five Phases of Changing a Toxic Habit

Holly Slater by Mor Shani on Unsplash

Most people don’t face the challenge of a bad habit and then suddenly change overnight because they want to. Whatever the toxic behavior, it’s something you build up over time. It becomes ingrained in you. It takes Herculean amounts of mental fortitude just to get yourself in the right mindset to start working on bad habits. And without feeling mentally ready and prepared to change, you likely won’t. I recently read about the transtheoretical model of behavior change, or TTM. While there are several models floating around out there, I connected personally to this well-known theory when it came to recently re-igniting my health and fitness journey. Created in the 1980s by alcoholism researchers James O. Prochaska and Carlo C. DiClemente, TTM revolves around the idea that “change is a process, not an event.” At any given time, a person wrestling with a toxic habit is in one of the five stages of change: precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, or maintenance. This, I realized, is me. It’s as if Prochaska and DiClemente were inside my head, seeing what goes on when I’m trying and failing to get rid of a bad habit I can’t seem to kick. This would explain why once I stopped exercising, it took me so long to get from thinking about how I wanted to start again, to actually doing it. 

Laser Focus On One Goal Makes Mental Room For More 

I have quite a few toxic habits that have been getting worse over the course of the pandemic. I can drink my friends under the table. I can binge eat multiple times a night without a single stomach issue. I can sleep in until 1pm with the ease of a teenager. These aren’t humble brags. I’ve put my body through some nasty abuse to get to this point. And I’ve added about 70 pounds to my frame since I’ve started sitting all day for a desk job two years ago. But research shows that when we try to focus on too many goals at once, we’re often less committed and less likely to succeed than those who narrow their focus. So, let’s narrow the focus to toxic habit number one: not exercising. 


When I say not exercising, I mean, like not at all. I don’t have to even walk from my car to my office now since I’ve been working from home due to COVID-19. I was literally going from bed, to desk, to couch, to bed. All day every day. The lack of exercise was making me gain even more weight. I felt like I had zero energy all the time. I felt anxious and depressed. It’s a vicious cycle. If I don’t get some physical activity, I have less energy and feel more depressed. In that state, I don’t feel up to working out. So, I cope by drinking or eating more, which has become my emotional crutch. You could call this vicious cycle the precontemplation phase. I thought I was stuck in a rut, so I just thew my hands up and didn’t try to change it. I thought my will to be a couch potato was simply too strong, and that I’d keep going down a path that was terrible for my physical and mental health. Basically, I didn’t believe in myself, so I didn’t try. 


Eventually, I couldn’t fit into my clothes. I know people say that and they mean they have a few cute pairs of skinny jeans that don’t work for them anymore, but for me, it’s actually most of my wardrobe. One of my rock-bottom moments was putting on my sports bra that fastens in the back. Last week, after I fastened it, it was so tight I couldn’t wear it. On top of that, I hit my highest weight ever on the scale. I’m in the obese range, and it’s taking a toll on my health. I knew something needed to change. This is contemplation. Unhealthy diet, drinking almost every night, sleeping in late all the time. I had to stop it. I wanted to start taking care of myself and feeling better.So I gave myself one simple goal instead of trying to focus on everything all at once: get on my home elliptical and move on it for anywhere from a half-hour to an hour. 


Even when we decide we want to change, it doesn’t happen right away. Once we know the goal, we have to prepare for the best way to realistically achieve it. If we put too much pressure on ourselves, like start our exercise routine with a too-challenging workout that we physically aren’t ready to handle, we won’t want to do it. By starting with a realistic routine you know you can achieve, you’ll be more likely to follow through. Instead of running 5 miles outside in the snow and cold, I decided the more achievable goal was the elliptical. I told myself I was going to start this week, but I allowed time for preparation. Over the course of a few days, I blocked a space in my work schedule for an exercise break, washed my favorite sports bra that was crumpled in a ball at the bottom of my hamper (one that does fit), and made a Spotify playlist that I knew would get my adrenaline going. I was prepared to take that first step toward action. 


Today is the first day I started working out again in a long, long time. After months of sitting around and feeling too mentally drained to do something as simple as getting off the couch and going for a walk, I had the willpower to get up and have a workout. You don’t just suddenly find the willpower to start changing a toxic habit. You search for it and do the work you need to collect small pieces of it. You build that willpower. You contemplate, you prepare, you take action. You go easy on yourself and take the time and space you need. You work with achievable goals and avoid overwhelming yourself with too much change at once. And by focusing on one thing, you can clear up mental space to start focusing on another. I actually flew past the half-hour mark and had an hour-long workout today, sweat and all. And the thing is, after I was done, I had more physical and mental energy throughout the entire night than I’ve had in months. My mood was lifted, my anxiety gone. I was able to put in a load of laundry without the mental tug of war I usually have with myself. Those endorphins are no joke. 


At the maintenance phase, you’re working to integrate the change into your life. This means consistency with your ongoing goal. Whatever toxic habit you want to change, whether it’s procrastination with writing, an unhealthy diet, or shopping too much — whatever it is, it will take work to keep yourself from falling back into your old ways. This means that my one day of working out, though successful, is not all it’s going to take. I have to keep at it. I have to improve my stamina and slowly and steadily work toward more ambitious fitness goals that keep me interested and having fun. 

Your Toxic Beast Can Be Tamed 

Remember to be kind to yourself if you seem to go back and forth and back again between phases — or if you end up starting over altogether. It’s common for people to cycle through multiple times. It goes without saying that change is hard, and for most, it takes a long time. If you fail, that doesn’t mean you can’t eventually change. That doesn’t mean you’re stuck forever and you can’t try again. Our toxic habits are habits for a reason. They are what we know and what we’re used to. They are familiar, and we often take great comfort in them even though they’re hurting us in the long run. And the process to unlearn toxic habits and replace them with the behaviors we want for ourselves is a beast. But your beast can be tamed. 

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