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Rock Paper Scissors: Stages of Change

By Ben.

When you learn about the stages of change professionally they give them very complicated names that don't always have a lot of clarity. The formal stages of change include pre-contemplation, contemplation, planning, action, relapse, and maintenance. At Three Trees we tend to divide change up into three easy to understand stages: Rock, Paper, Scissors. You probably remember playing this game as a child. If you don't remember, paper beats rock, scissors beat paper, and rock beats scissors. The same is true for our stages of change.


The rock stage represents the period for any change is attempted. It reflects the lack of movement and the qualities of stagnation. Think about an individual, named Fred, who is getting caught up in a lot of debt. The rock period would be the stage where Fred does not change their spending habits regardless of recognizing the growing problem. We stay in the rock stage till the pain of not changing the behavior becomes more uncomfortable than the discomfort of admitting the growing problem and engaging in change behavior. This can take a long time to happen as the brain really enjoys repeating behaviors over and over again.


The paper stage is when we decide we do need to make some changes and we start to put pen to paper to plan out the necessary changes. Let us go back to our example with Fred. One day Fred realizes he would like to buy a house. So he goes down to the bank and inquires about a home mortgage. They inform him that his debt is too high for them to offer him the loan he was hoping to get. The pain of not being able to move forward with his house purchase is higher than his discomfort with his debt had previously been. When he gets home from the bank he starts to think more seriously about the need to work on his debt and set up a plan so that in a couple of years he can revisit the bank and obtain the mortgage to meet his residential goals. He starts researching ways of paying off his debt and comes up with a plan. He runs this plan past his uncle who is a financial planner, his uncle suggests some changes but approves of all the overall plan.


Fred put his plan into action. He cuts down on his spending and things are going well. The scissors stage represents when we start "cutting" out old behaviors and replacing them with new ones. The biggest mistake that individuals make during the scissors stage is by not replacing the old behavior with a new one. Instead they just leave a void where the old behavior used to be which makes it more likely they will end up relapsing

Rock Stage Revisited:

As Frank cuts out his spending he realizes he no longer has much of a social life. He used to spend a lot of money going out to eat and drink with friends and now that he is on a stricter budget he chooses to stay home. He starts to get very bored as he is not replacing his social activities with less expensive ones. As the boredom grows he looses sight on his financial goals and starts to fall back into old social behaviors. Just like in the game, rock paper scissors, we have to watch out for the rock stage of denial blunting the scissors stage of change. Frank is going to need to find low cost social alternatives to replace his high cost social activities if he is to make the necessary changes to meet his financial goals.

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