The Power of Sustainable Thinking: The 5-D Stages of Change

Bob Doppelt

Editor's Note: The following abridged extracts have been taken from Chapter 7: Transforming Your Personal Thinking and Behaviour from the new book by Bob Doppelt, The Power of Sustainable Thinking; How to Create a Positive Future for the Climate, the Planet, Your Organization and Your Life. The book is a how-to manual for changing institutional and individual thinking. For more information visit

The Power of Sustainable ThinkingTHE DISINTEREST STAGE OF CHANGE

This is the ‘not ready to change' stage of the transition to sustainable thinking and where change begins for most people. One of the most perplexing aspects of people who are disinterested in altering their thinking and behaviour about the climate and other sustainability issues is that they stay stuck here even when the downsides of their current patterns are obvious to other people. In fact, people often work hard to stay mired in disinterest.

For disinterested people, however, change is not a priority. Because it often takes effort to maintain disinterest, people who are in this stage often need help from others to progress beyond it.

People stay rooted in disinterest for different reasons, which can be summarized as the four Rs: reluctance, rebellion, resignation and rationalization. Often, a combination of these defence mechanisms is at play.


If you want to move beyond disinterest you must begin to reframe your thinking. Cognitive reframing is important throughout the entire sustainable thinking transformation process, and involves surfacing and recognizing your current perspectives and the behaviours that they generate, consciously challenging illogical, distorted or maladaptive beliefs and thought patterns, and then adopting new perspectives that are more helpful.

Four basic change mechanisms contribute to the cognitive reframing process: disturbances, awareness-building, choice expansion and supportive relationships


This is the ‘I might change' stage of the sustainable thinking transformation process. It's likely you now have some awareness, however small, of the risks that global warming, ecological degradation and related social distress poses to your family, others or yourself, and your possible role in perpetuating the problems. If you are like others, your curiosity may be growing and you may even be excited about this new awareness and the possibility of engaging in sustainable thinking.

It's also probable, however, that you are still unclear about the causes of climate change and the other issues of sustainability or what's involved with doing your part to resolve the matters. You may wonder, for example, if steps that you take will actually make a difference.

You might become stuck in deliberation if you suffer from one or more of the 4 Rs discussed in the disinterest stage. For instance, you may be hoping that some new technological solution will resolve the problem without you having to do much of anything. Humans have an enormous capacity for wishful thinking.

If any of these perspectives dominate your thinking, you run the risk of becoming a chronic deliberator. The use of specific change mechanisms, however, can help you to resolve your concerns and move to the next stage of change.


Despite the potential risks of deliberation, it's important to spend some time internally debating the pros and cons of becoming a sustainable thinker before moving to the design stage. Your primary task here is to determine if the benefits of adopting climate-positive thought and behaviour outweigh the costs. The change mechanisms that are particularly helpful in making this decision include continued awareness building, choice expansion and supportive relationships.


This is the ‘I will change' stage of the shift to sustainable thinking. It involves designing a plan to alter your thinking and behaviour. A well designed strategy can provide you with ways to overcome obstacles and to monitor and measure your progress.

Psychologists have developed an approach for better goal attainment called an ‘implementation intention'. What this means is that planning in advance when, where and how you will complete a self-assigned goal produces greater success. Studies have found that implementation intentions will help you to work towards goals and, over time, allow the process to feel automatic. Making specific goals for yourself in the sense of ‘I intend to achieve x' is a powerful way of implementing specific changes in your thinking and behaviour, and achieving specific outcomes even when difficulties arise.


The benefit of setting specific goals underscores that the most important change mechanism in the design stage is commitment. Making a firm pledge to adopt sustainable thinking and behaviour involves developing a positive vision of how you want to think and treat the climate, natural environment and other people now and in the future. Other important change mechanisms in the design stage include continued self-appraisal and supportive relationships.

The design stage does not need to be long. However, it needs to be thorough enough to give you a good sense of the initial steps you will take to engage in sustainable thinking. Keep the plan fluid. Action plans are best used to guide, not to dictate. Focus on the mind and behavioural change process you have learned, not on rigidly following the plan or attaining specific results.


This is the ‘I am changing' stage of the sustainable thinking transformation process. It involves implementing the steps outlined in your action plan. Thinking sustainably is hard work. Doing, however, is also exciting. As you begin to see changes occurring, your spirits will lift and your energy level will rise.

Keep in mind that because systems are structured to resist change, as you begin to act, resistance from others as well as technical and logistical barriers are certain to emerge. To prevent yourself from procrastinating or backing away you need to be armed with specific strategies for responding to obstacles of all kinds.

It is always important to see reality clearly. However, it is equally important to know that reality is just as much, or more, a function of our perspectives than it is related to tangible circumstances. Our sense of reality usually changes when we alter our mind frame.

This is why it is so important to keep a positive orientation when implementing your change plan. Researchers have called the way an individual habitually explains the causes of events that happen to them as their ‘explanatory style'. If you believe that the problems and unpleasant conditions that occur to you are permanent, all encompassing and due mostly to deep-rooted personal failings, you are likely to struggle to successfully overcome obstacles.


In order to maintain a positive orientation during the doing stage of the sustainable thinking change process, you need to continue to keep your commitment high. Because of the need to overcome resistance and obstacles at this point, behaviour change mechanisms such as reinforcement, substitution and structural redesign become especially important.


This is the ‘I have changed' stage of the transition to sustainable thinking.
After about six months or so of actively pursuing climate-positive activities, your task shifts to learning how to make the new patterns grow, stick and become routine over the long haul. This is not easy. Resistance from others and numerous obstacles are likely to continue to pop up as you trek down the path. You must therefore continually defend your new thinking and behaviour until they become as automatic as your former climate-damaging thoughts and behaviour once were.

One of the most important points to remember when implementing your change plan is that action is not the same as change (Prochaska et al, 1994). Just because you start to make a few short-term changes does not mean your core beliefs, assumptions and automatic thoughts have fundamentally changed. It takes a long time for new thinking to become embedded in the core of your being. The defending stage of the shift to sustainable thinking may last for years - and, more than likely, a lifetime.

Even though I am involved with research and teach climate change and sustainability courses, for instance, the effort needed to continually fend off resistance from others and to surmount obstacles often causes me to consider falling back into unsustainable thinking and behaviour patterns. The defending stage of change is therefore the most arduous stage. It can also, however, be the most enjoyable part of the change process.


The same change mechanisms that you used in the doing stage are important when defending your new thinking and behaviour. What's different in this stage is the emphasis on long-term commitment and on major structural redesign.

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  • Posted on Aug. 23, 2008. Listed in:

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