Why Change is so Darn Hard and 4 ways You can Increase Your Likelihood of Success

The focus of personal development is growth and this will typically involve change. While in some ways change has become the popular thing to do, it is not easy. Change involves not only stepping into a new light, but also leaving behind something familiar. It can be difficult to determine which is more difficult, but the two in combination can throw a knock-out punch.

You are a creature of habit. Your life is designed around things you do repeatedly and your brain improves with practice. It was designed to become better at things you do over and over. Because of this, things you do again and again, such as eating junk food or smoking, become engraved in your brain – literally. Your brain physically changes according to your habits. That is why people who suffer from dementia sometimes remember things from their childhood with great clarity but have trouble remembering what happened last week. Things people have done repeatedly over long periods of time are more deeply engrained in their memory. You can read more here. Warning: Neuroscientists (i.e. those guys who study the brain) apparently don’t know much about river banks but prefer to use long words that can be difficult to pronounce.

Think about how a river carves a path in the earth. The more water that flows, the deeper the path becomes, and the river follows the path. Imagine how difficult it is for the river to create a new path. The deep path the river follows keeps the water confined within the banks and it takes a lot to change those patterns. It takes more than simply deciding to do so.

nothing changesIt’s the same way with habits. The longer you’ve had a habit, the more water you have running between those banks. Trying to change the flow is not going to happen overnight but it can happen. Slow and steady, dedicated, persistent effort can change the path of the water. But the banks holding back the water are powerful.

This is why making a change is difficult. Your brain locks into your behavioral patterns. Remember Pavlov? For those of you who don’t know, Pavlov was a psychologist who noticed that his laboratory dogs would salivate when the handlers brought their food. He started having the handlers ring a bell just prior to feeding them. After a designated period of time, he would simply ring a bell and the dogs would salivate, even though no food was offered. This much-condensed explanation is called classical conditioning. Brain patterns respond to what they are “used to” and will continue to respond, at least for a while, even if there is no longer the same reward (in the case of Pavlov’s dogs, it was their food).

Okay then, let’s look at a practical application. Suppose that every time you plan a road trip you load the car with junk food. After a while the mere suggestion of a road trip makes you hungry for junk food. That is why when your buddy mentions a road trip you suddenly want a bag of Cheetos and a Snickers. You see, he rings the bell (mentions the road trip)… and you salivate (crave junk food)! You have conditioned yourself to want junk food on a road trip. Breaking free from this conditioning is difficult, but it can be done.

Here are a few more examples: if you work out but don’t vary your workout routine, your muscles don’t work as hard. Why? Because they know what’s coming. Your body is very good at adapting. Have you ever climbed in your car and headed to destination A only to find yourself at destination B, a location you drive to more frequently than A? Your habits took over. Ever spent the day at work, answering the phone, only to go home and have your home phone ring and answer it the way you answer the phone at work? Yet another example of how powerful routine is.

Re-groove Your Brain

When you decide to make a change you have to give those grooves in your brain time to change. It doesn’t happen overnight and the new habit you are creating is as important as the one you are moving away from. In fact, focusing on the new habit can help your brain to more quickly create new “banks” for your river. While it takes effort to change old habits, looking forward to the new behavior helps to alter your thought patterns, which in turn helps change your behavior. But again, it does not happen overnight.

Some of you may remember years ago when addictions counselors discovered that it was hugely beneficial to people coming out of rehab to find a new group of friends and form new patterns of behavior. Their clients were more successful at remaining clean and sober when they were prepared for life outside the rehab clinic and could head off the old habits before they took hold. Jumping into the same river would only take them where they had been previously. They needed to create a new course. Socrates said, “The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.”

The new habit you focus on brings with it the materials you need to build new grooves and as this happens, the old grooves will slowly (very, very slowly) fade away. Focusing on not doing something can be counter-productive because as long as the thought is in your head your old grooves are being reinforced. That is why spending time thinking about your new habit does double-duty to get you away from the habit you want to break. It not only eliminates your old-habit thinking, but it is also building the grooves for your new habit.

Create Readiness for Change

Think how much effort it would take to change the course of a river. In a metaphorical sense, no less effort is required to change the course of your habits. One of the first things that must happen is creating readiness for change. Think it through. Prepare yourself. Know for sure that you want the change you are trying to create. Make a plan you can stick to by keeping it as simple as possible. If you are trying to stop smoking, decide what you will do when you crave a cigarette. Think about who will support you when you don’t think you can hold out for one more second.

If you have decided to go back to school decide where you will study, how you will fit in the additional work around your other responsibilities. Think about what reminders you will give yourself when you get bogged down and feel overwhelmed. Be ready to push through those barriers, or have someone you can call who will cheer you on or listen to you try to talk yourself out of it. But make sure that person understands your determination and is ready to give you the push you need to stay on track.

Second, be ready for the old habit to emerge in other areas of your life. For example, if you accept a new job and the rules are different than what you are used to, you might find yourself trying to bring your previous rules with you. Sometimes that is okay. It might even be why they hired you. Most of the time those old habits need to be told to pack up and get out.

Readiness for change can get your thinking where it needs to be before you begin. It can prepare you for the bumpy road ahead and help you to stay on track when your old habits try to suck you back in.

Well-intended (or not-so-well-intended) Change-Backers

Another thing to be ready for is the people around you trying to change you back. It is very common for the people in your life, even the best intentioned, to resist the change(s) you are trying to make. They, too, are accustomed to routine and your behavior is a part of that. When you change, it can be challenging to them. Be prepared for them to question you and even have an accusatory tone such as, “Well, you didn’t used to….”

Sometimes the change-back stuff is very intentional. People, even people who love you, sometimes struggle with your success. They make it about them and might feel like if you succeed that means they are failing. Another problem can be that the other person (or people) have been enabling your behavior so when you change, it can force them to realize the role they played in your old habit.

Knowing that there might be people who will try to change you back can prepare you for ways to handle it. Primarily, it is important for you to remember why you wanted to change in the first place and to recall why you need to stay on track. Growth and change are not easy but are always worth it.

Progress, Not Perfection

If you want to change decide which way you want the river to flow. Make small changes you can live with. If you look at change as temporary, your brain will know about your plans. (It is very difficult to keep this kind of information from your brain.) Be firm and resolute – persist through the difficulties. Change other parts of your routine to make the change more probable. For example, if you tend to overeat when you are tired, make a plan about how you will deal with meals or snacks when you know you will be tired. Plan ahead and have something healthy on hand, or at the very least, eliminate the unhealthy stuff. Teach your brain that there is another way and refuse to let that sucker sabotage you! One step at a time, one groove at a time you can change your life. But you have to keep going. Will Rogers said, “Even if you are on the right track you’ll get run over if you just stand there.” Progress, even slow progress, means to keep moving.

Change is difficult, but possible. This blog offers reasons why change is difficult and things you can do to be more successful in your change efforts. Be confident in your ability to make change a reality. You can do it if you are committed. Be prepared for setbacks but keep going. Start again and again and again but watch out for repeating patterns of start, fail, quit. If you start and fail, try to determine why you failed and change at least one thing before you make your next effort. ball drop


Why change one thing? Because if you keep trying the same thing in the same way you are creating failure grooves. Something has to change before change takes hold and becomes permanent. Be patient with yourself and with the process. You’ll get there.




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