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Last Updated on September 15, 2021

Can People Change When Changing Is So Difficult?

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Can People Change When Changing Is So Difficult?

Hope is not a strategy when it comes to change. Commitment is what is needed to make real change happen. Can people change? Absolutely, but exchanging your excuses for commitment is necessary to get started.

Human nature leans toward habits, which can become ingrained over the years, but that doesn’t mean habits can be undone.

Why Behavior Change Can Be so Difficult?

Our Past Affects Our Behavioral Choices

Our well-worn habits and behaviors are a result of our past experiences and the decisions we have previously made. [1]

We may have seen, heard, or felt something, and because of this we decided to believe something about ourselves and the world. Some of the most limiting of those beliefs we form between the ages of 0-7.

All beliefs serve us in a positive way to a point. However, eventually when we want to change or evolve, they start to limit us.

This is because our beliefs drive our behavior. If we want to adopt a new habit to drive change, those beliefs start to get in the way. [2]

Our belief system usually drives our behavior from our unconscious mind. This means we are unaware of it and can automatically fall back into the old behavior.

People have even described this is a feeling of being blocked. They know what they need to do, but they do the opposite instead.

The easiest example to give here is with weight loss. If you unconsciously believe you are “not good enough,” it may mean you will choose the piece of cake when you go to the fridge instead of a piece of fresh fruit. This supports the belief and keeps you in your comfort zone of health related behaviors.

Taking this belief into the work environment, you may choose to get lost in social media instead of making those follow-up calls. Again, this helps you avoid potential rejection where that belief may be exposed, keeping you safe.

The key to change here is consciousness: becoming aware of any limiting beliefs you do have and making a conscious decision to change them.

Our Core Identity Drives Behavior

There are also those ambiguous things we call core values. These are embedded with a whole range of different beliefs.

Our values are the things that are important to us. They are our “why” for who we are and what we do.

A recent study found an important connection between core values and self-control, stating:

“[I]t is possible that expressing one’s core values facilitates self-control regardless of the construal level at which values are expressed.” [3]

Furthermore, the study found that affirming core values worked to counteract ego depletion, leading to a more complete sense of self.

It’s easy to see how this can influence one’s ability to work on successful behavior change. With a higher level of self-control and a more complete view of who you are as a person, your ability to change increases significantly.

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Most of the time, core values operate on an unconscious level, meaning they will affect any decision we make automatically. The above study suggests that making them visible through positive affirmations affects our decisions in a more obvious, positive way.

Applying this to the weight loss example earlier, imagine you valued a sense of belonging, which led to concerns about being with people who act similarly to you. Having a glass of water out socially with friends might mean you feel like an outsider. Because of this, you choose a glass of wine instead.

In the work example, maybe you value support, and it’s about being there for people who need you. You want to achieve greater things, but someone needs a hand, and you prioritize their request instead of making those essential calls.

The key here is having awareness and working on consciousness raising. Remember our values sit in our unconscious, and not many people have a full understanding of them.

Becoming conscious of your values and the belief system that lies behind them will help you see what needs to change internally. Making those inner adjustments will, in turn, shift your behavior.

You Don’t Know Your “Why”

Assistant Professor of Psychology Elliot Berkman PhD calls this your “Will.” This isn’t so much about willpower, but he refers to it as “the motivation and emotional aspects of behavior change.”[5]

It’s about understanding your “why” for change and why specifically it’s important to you.

Because a friend has done it, you think it might be a good idea for you, too. Or you think it’s something you should do or need to do. Perhaps you are even doing it because someone else wants you to or has asked you to.

Doing it for someone else can cause what I call the see-saw, stop, and start effect. You start off motivated, and then you lose interest and stop. You see their disappointment, and then you start again.

If you haven’t personally connected to your “why,” your motivation will quickly fizzle out, and you will sabotage your attempts at success.

Knowing why you personally want the change and why it’s important to you here and now will fire you up. This is about connecting your desire for change to your values so you can emotionally connect to it.

You Walk the Path of Least Resistance

Clinical psychologist Dr. Soph focuses on making neuroscience simple and easily understood. She refers to walking the path of least resistance as “homeostasis,” which is keeping things the same. It’s about staying within our comfort zone, where we feel safe and secure and where we can get by without using a lot of energy.

She explains:

“When your brain is repeating a habit (the feeling of ‘running on autopilot’) it doesn’t need to use much energy because it doesn’t have to engage the prefrontal cortex.” [4]

She likens this process to creating a new path in a field. It will always be easier to walk over a path that is already well-worn from use. Starting a new path in a field of tall grass is much more uncomfortable and requires significantly more motivation and energy. Most will naturally choose the well-worn path.

It is the same with any change, and for those of us with a preference for sameness, it will feel hard to make those new connections.

This is probably where the rule of 21 days comes in, although 90 days may be more realistic if we’re talking about long-term, sustainable change. During those three months our unconscious mind keeps trying to revert us back to the old neural connections because it feels easier.

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It’s kind of like a sled on the top of a snow slope. The track that the sled has used numerous times will be much deeper and solid. The sled is steady in that track. Wearing in a new track will take time, and the sled will try to veer back to the old one until the snow becomes bedded down.

Again, conscious awareness is key. Remind yourself that you are in the process of embedding the new neural connection. Be aware of when you try to revert back to the old track and steer yourself away again.

We Are Wired to Mirror Others

Another reason we might find behavior change so hard is that we are naturally hard wired to imitate. This is because of a small circuit of cells in the brain called mirror neurons.

Neuroscientist Marco Lacoboni explains,

“The way mirror neurons likely let us understand others is by providing some kind of inner imitation of the actions of other people, which in turn leads us to “simulate” the intentions and emotions associated with those actions.” [5]

These neurons are ultimately key to socialization. In fact, these are the neurons that help us build our social skills. They are the exact same neurons that lead a baby to smile when we smile. This may help to explain why we often get in our own way. While trying to fit in with a specific social group through imitation, our brains may lose focus on specific changes we want to make to be different.

If we have a closer circle of friends or loved ones who have habits that can derail our change, we are likely to revert back. That’s why if we attempt to give up smoking, and our partner still smokes, it can be really hard to stay committed.

Conscious awareness of this is essential. If you want to sustainably achieve change, surround yourself with like-minded people as much as possible.

The good news is that your personality and behaviors can be changed, but it is up to you. Below are some tips to help you get started with change.

1. Figure out What You Need to Change

If you’re reading this, you’re probably already aware of something you would like to change. That’s great! The first step toward change is acknowledging that you have something you need to change.

Look at the repeated problems in your life, the issues that seem to come up time and time again. Do you keep gravitating toward the wrong relationships, but you blame the people you are choosing, rather than looking at your problem in the selection process?

Do you jump from one job to another, yet blame co-workers and bosses, rather than look at what you may be doing to cause problems and dissatisfaction on the job?

We are creatures of habit, so look at the negative patterns in your life. Then, look inside to see what’s causing these repeated life problems to occur. If you can’t figure it out on your own, consider going to a counselor for better understanding. Once you recognize the area that requires change, you can move to the next step.

2. Believe That Change Is Indeed Possible

There are people out there who believe that personality is unchangeable. When confronted with their problem, such as constant negativity, they lash back with “that’s just who I am.” It may be who you are, but does it need to be?

Change in personality and behaviors is possible. Nobody stays the same from one year to the next, let alone across a decade, so why not move change in the direction that is best for you? Be proactive about the change you want in your life, including the belief that change can occur.

Look for success stories and people who have changed and done what you so deeply desire to do. Seeing that others have been where you have are and have accomplished the change you desire will help you in your process to accomplish that change.

3. List the Benefits of This Change

In order for people to change, they need to buy into the premise that the change is necessary for their betterment. For example, maybe your goal is to be more productive at work. There are many benefits that could come from this, including:

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  • Getting more done in a shorter amount of time.
  • Having more time for your family.
  • Getting a promotion
  • Being liked and appreciated by your boss.
  • Being part of the success of the company.

One of the best ways to help yourself stick to the commitment of change is to make a list of the benefits that the change will bring in your life. Make one list of the benefits for your life and another for your loved ones. Recognizing the full spectrum of benefits, including how your change will affect those closest to you, will help you stick with the process of change.

When you have moments of weakness, or fail on a particular day or time, then getting back on track becomes easier when you review your list on a regular basis. Posting your “benefits of change” list somewhere where you see it often, such as a bathroom mirror, will help you be reminded of why you are doing what you are doing.

4. Make a Real Commitment to Change

Make a commitment to the time frame needed for the change to happen. If you want to lose 50 lbs., then set out a realistic plan of a few pounds per week and a timeline that reflects those goals.

It will take you a lot longer than a month, but setting realistic goals will help you stick to your commitment. Change happens one day at a time. It is not immediate, but over the course of time because of your dedication and commitment to the process.

It also helps if you make your goals SMART: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-bound.[6]

People can change using SMART goals

    An example of this would be a person who wants to become an active runner so they can tackle a half marathon. The first step would be to research what other people have done for training plans to achieve this goal.

    Runners World lays out specifics for a beginner to train for a half marathon: “Target the Long Run: Every other week, increase your long run by 1.5 miles until you’re run/walking 13 to 14 miles. On alternate weeks, keep your long run to no longer than three miles. Your longest long run should fall two weeks before your half-marathon. Plan to take about 15 weeks to prepare for the big day.”[7]

    These kinds of specificities will help you create a personalized plan that is achievable and time-bound.

    You can learn more about writing SMART goals here.

    5. Create a Plan of Attack

    You need a set of steps outlined to succeed. This is why 12-step programs are so successful. You can’t simply walk into a meeting and be cured and changed. You need to mentally process the change in order for the change to be lasting and effective.

    Create a plan for your change. Be realistic and investigate what other people have done to change.

    For example, if you are dealing with anxiety and want to change that, then seek out therapy methods to address your problem. Stick with the therapy plan until your change process is complete. Simply hoping the anxiety will someday go away is not a plan.

    6. Commit to Action

    It is wonderful to set a goal for change and to write it down, but if you don’t act, then your mental commitment means nothing. There is no actual commitment unless action follows. To best kick start our change, the key is to act now[8].

    For example, if you committed to lose 50lbs, then now is the time to go join a gym, hire a trainer, and walk into a weight loss clinic to get support. We can make up our mind to be determined to change, but if action does not follow soon thereafter, then you will likely fail.

    If you wait until later that week, you will get caught up in doing your daily routine, things for works, taking care of others, or whatever it may be; there will be distractions that will derail you from taking action later. There is no better time to take action than when you make the decision to change.

    For example, if you decide you want to finally write that book that is in your mind, but you don’t have a working laptop, then go and get a laptop today. Then, set aside an hour each day after work (and on your calendar) so that you can write. Instead of going out with friends after work, you are committing to achieve this goal, and you have time set aside to make that goal happen.

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    7. Find a Support System

    When people want to change, finding a support system is key. A great way to find support is through group therapy or support groups. If you have a substance abuse issue, for example, you can find groups that specialize is supporting you through recovery and change.

    If you prefer to find support in the comfort of your own home, then you can look for online support forums and Facebook groups that deal with whatever change you are looking to pursue.

    Your ability to be successful in change is dependent on your ability to dive in; support systems help you with the initial dive and staying committed thereafter. and will help you stay committed to the process. Don’t underestimate the power you have by partnering with others who are seeking the same change.

    8. Get Uncomfortable

    Change should be uncomfortable. You are entering new territory and stepping out of your comfort zone. Your mind and past habits will be resistant to the change, as it is uncomfortable and difficult.

    If you give up because of the discomfort, then you are destined to fail in your pursuit of change. Embrace the discomfort associated with change and recognize that it puts you one step closer to accomplishing your goals.

    9. Stick to the Plan

    When people decide to change, sticking to it is difficult. If you get derailed from your plan, don’t berate yourself. Instead, allow yourself some margin of error and then get back on track.

    You can’t expect to go on a diet without splurging sometimes. The key is “sometimes.” The sooner you get back on track, the more successful you will be in accomplishing your change goals.

    Other researchers on the topic of change believe this process is about dedication and commitment to the change desired in our day to day lives, as Douglas LaBier from the Huffington Post so aptly stated:[9]

    “Change occurs from awareness of what aspects of our personality we want to develop, and working hard to “practice” them in daily life.”

    Here are some tips on sticking to a plan:

    Engage in Self-Reflection

    Reflect on things that have derailed you in the past and problem solve them before they happen.

    Jot down those things that tend to get you off track. Now, list ways to combat the derailments before they happen. For example, if you are wanting to lose weight but you work late hours, then commit to morning workouts.

    If you know that in the past you would continually hit the snooze button and subsequently miss the workouts, then hire a trainer for early morning workouts. You are less likely to miss your workout if you have real money attached to it and someone counting on you to show up. You could also schedule morning workouts with a friend, so you know there is someone showing up and you don’t want to let them down.

    Brainstorm solutions for your past derailments so that this time around you are ready to stick to the plan and the commitment you have made to change.

    Define Your Commitment

    Commitment is a daily mental and physical plight when it comes to change. If your commitment is to lose weight, then be specific about how you are going to achieve your change. For example, you decide you are going to stick to 1,800 calories a day and a 1-hour workout every day.

    Then, write those goals down and chart your daily progress. Hold yourself accountable.

    Final Thoughts

    Can people change? Hopefully, by now, you believe that they can. If you have a sense of commitment and persistence, change is possible with any life experience.

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    Start small, create specific goals, and don’t wait to get started. You’ll be amazed how far change will take you.

    More on How to Make Changes in Your Life

    Featured photo credit: Jurica Koletić via unsplash.com

    Reference

    More by this author

    Dr. Magdalena Battles

    A Doctor of Psychology with specialties include children, family relationships, domestic violence, and sexual assault

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    Last Updated on October 7, 2021

    How to Make a Change With the Four Quadrants of Change

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    How to Make a Change With the Four Quadrants of Change

    Quitting smoking is the easiest thing in the world. Some people quit smoking a thousand times in their lives! Everyone knows someone with this mindset.

    But this type of change is superficial. It doesn’t last. For real, lasting change to take place, we need to consider the quadrants of change.

    Real change, the change that is fundamental, consistent, and longitudinal (lasting over time) has to happen in four quadrants of your life.

    It doesn’t have to be quitting smoking; it can be any habit you want to break — drinking, biting your nails, overeating, playing video games, shopping, and more.

    Most experts focus on only one area of change, some focus on two areas, but almost none focus on all four quadrants of change. That’s why much of change management fails.

    Whether it is in the personal life of a single individual through actions and habits, or in a corporate environment, regarding the way they conduct their business, current change management strategies are lacking.

    It all stems from ignoring at least one part of the equation.

    So, today, we will cover all four quadrants of change and learn the formula for how to change fundamentally and never go back to your “old self.”

    A word of warning: this is simple to do, but it’s not easy. Anyone who tells you that change is easy is either trying to sell you something, or they have no idea what they’re talking about.

    Those who want an overnight solution have left the article now, so that leaves you, me, and the real process of change.

    The Four Quadrants of Change

    There are four areas, or quadrants, in which you need to make a change in order for it to stick. If you miss or ignore a single one of these, your change won’t stick, and you will go back to your previous behavior.

    The four quadrants are:

    1. Internal individual – mindset
    2. External individual – behavior
    3. Internal collective – culture/support system
    4. External collective – laws, rules, regulations, teams, systems, states

    All four of these quadrants of change may sound like they could carry change all by themselves, but they can’t. So, be sure to implement your change in all four quadrants. Otherwise, it will all be in vain.

    First Quadrant — Internal Individual

    This quadrant focuses on the internal world of an individual, and it concerns itself with the mindset of a person.

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    Our actions stem from our thoughts (most of the time), and if we change our mindset toward something, we will begin to process of changing the way we act.

    People who use the law of attraction fall into this category, where they’ve recognized the strength of thoughts and how they make us change ourselves.

    Even Lao Tzu had a great saying regarding this:

    “Watch your thoughts. They become words. Watch your words. They become deeds. Watch your deeds. They become habits. Watch your habits. They become character. Character is everything.” [1]

    One of the most impactful ways you can make a change in this quadrant is to implement what James Clear calls identity-based habits. [2]

    Instead of prioritizing the outcome of a change (ex.: I want to lose 20 pounds), you prioritize your identity as a person (I want to become/remain a healthy person).

    Here are a couple of examples for you to see the strength of this kind of resolution:

    I want to watch many movies = I am a cinema lover
    I want to clean my apartment = I am a clean person
    I want to harvest my crops = I am a harvester (farmer)
    I want to swim = I am a swimmer

    This quadrant is about changing the identity you attach to a certain action. Once you re-frame your thinking in this way, you will have completed the first of the quadrants of change.

    Second Quadrant — External Individual

    This quadrant focuses on the external world of an individual and concerns itself with the behavior of a person.

    This is where people like Darren Hardy, the author of the Compound Effect reside. Hardy is about doing small, consistent actions that will create change in the long run (the compound effect).

    You want to lose 30 pounds? Start by eating just 150 calories (approximately two slices of bread) less a day, and in two and a half years, you will have lost 30 pounds.

    The same rules apply to business, investing, sports, and multiple other areas. Small, consistent actions can create big changes.

    This works — I’ve read 20 extra pages a day for the past two years, and it accumulated into 90 books read in two years. [3]

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    Here, you have two ways of dealing with change behaviorally: negative environmental design and positive environmental design.

    Negative Environmental Design

    This is when you eliminate the things from your environment that revert you to the old behavior. If you want to stop eating ice cream, you don’t keep it in your freezer.

    If you want to stop watching TV, you remove the batteries from the remote and put them on the other side of the house (it works!).

    Positive Environmental Design

    This is when you put the things that you want to do withing reach — literally!

    You want to learn how to play guitar? Put your guitar right next to your sofa. You want to head to the gym? Put the gym clothes in a backpack and put it on top of your shoes.

    You want to read more books? Have a book on your nightstand, your kitchen table, and on the sofa.

    You can even combine this last trick with my early advice about removing the batteries from your remote control, combining the negative and positive environmental designs for maximum effect.

    Two Sides of the Same Coin

    If you just change your behavior and leave your intentions (thoughts) intact, your discipline will fail you and the real change won’t happen.

    You will simply revert back to the previous behavior because you haven’t changed the fundamental root of why this problem occurs in the first place.

    That is why you need to create change both in the first quadrant (internal individual — mindset) and the second quadrant (external individual — behavior). These quadrants of change are two sides of the same coin.

    Most change management would stop here, and that’s why most change management fails.

    No matter how much you focus on yourself, there are things that affect our lives that are happening outside of us. That is the focus of the two remaining quadrants.

    Third Quadrant — Internal Collective

    This quadrant focuses on the internal world of the collective where the individual resides, and it concerns itself with the culture of that collective.

    There are two different distinctions here: the Inner Ring and the Outer Ring.

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    The Inner Ring

    These are your friends and your family. The Inner Ring is the place where the social and cultural norms of your friends and family rule.

    So, if everyone in your family is overweight and every lunch is 1,000 calories per person, then you can say goodbye to your idea of becoming healthy.

    In this case, the culture of your group, the inner norms that guide the decisions, actions, thoughts, ideas, and patterns of behaviors are all focused on eating as much as possible. [4]

    You need to have the support of your Inner Ring if you want to achieve change. If you don’t have this support, the the best way to proceed is by either changing your entire Inner Ring or distancing yourself from it.

    Beware — most Inner Rings won’t accept the fact that you want to change and will undermine you on many occasions — some out of habit, some due to jealousy, and some because supporting you would mean that they have to change, too.

    You don’t have to cut ties with people, but you can consciously decide to spend less time with them.

    The Outer Ring

    The Outer Ring consists of the culture of your company, community, county, region, and country. For example, it’s quite hard to be an open-minded person in North Nigeria, no matter how you, your friends, and your family think.

    The Outer Ring is the reason why young people move to the places that share their value systems instead of staying in their current city, county, or country.

    Sometimes, you need to change your Outer Ring as well because its culture is preventing you from changing.

    I see this every single day in my country, where the culture can be so toxic that it doesn’t matter how great of a job you have or how great your life currently looks — the culture will change you, inch by inch, until you become like it.

    Fourth Quadrant — External Collective

    This quadrant focuses on the external world of the collective where the individual resides, and it concerns itself with the systems, teams, laws, and rules of that collective.

    This quadrant is about the external manifestations of the collective culture. If the majority of the environment thinks in a certain way, they will create institutions that will implement that way of thinking.

    The same rules apply to companies.

    One example for companies would be those managers who think that employees are lazy, lack responsibility, and need constant supervision (or what is called Theory X in management).

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    Then, those managers implement systems that reflect that kind of culture– no flexible work hours, strict rules about logging work, no remote work, etc.

    Your thoughts, however, may be different. You might believe that people want responsibility, that they are capable of self-direction, that they can make good decisions, and that managers don’t need to stand on their necks if they want something done (this is called Theory Y in management).

    Then, you would want to have flexible working hours, different ways of measuring your productivity (for example, not time on the job but work produced), and remote work, if possible for your profession.

    This is when you enter into a conflict with the external collective quadrant. Here, you have four options: leave, persevere, neglect, and voice.

    Leave

    You can simply leave the company/organization/community/country and go to a different place. Most people decide to do this.

    Persevere

    This is when you see that the situation isn’t good, but you decide to stick at it and wait for the perfect time (or position) where you can implement change.

    Neglect

    This is where you give up on the change you want to see and just go with the flow, doing the minimal work necessary to keep the status quo.

    These are the people who are disengaged at work and are doing just the bare minimum necessary (which, in the U.S. is around 65% of the workforce).

    I did this only once, and it’s probably the only thing I regret doing in my life.

    Voice

    This is where you actively work on changing the situation, and the people in charge know that you want to create a change.

    It doesn’t matter if it’s your company, community, or your country; you are actively calling for a change and will not stop until it’s implemented.

    Putting It All Together

    When you take it all into account, change is simple, in theory, but it isn’t easy to execute. It takes work in all four quadrants:

    1. Internal individual — mindset
    2. External individual — behavior
    3. Internal collective — culture/support system
    4. External collective — laws, rules, regulations, teams, systems, states

    Some will require more work, some less, but you will need to create a change in all four of them.

    But don’t let that discourage you because change is possible, and many people have done this. The best time to start changing was yesterday, but the second best time is today.

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    Featured photo credit: Djim Loic via unsplash.com

    Reference

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