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Last Updated on November 26, 2020

Why Is Behavior Change So Hard? Science Explains It

Why Is Behavior Change So Hard? Science Explains It

Behavior change is key to achieving any goal or outcome we want. Experts often make this sound so simple, yet for many of us it can feel incredibly hard to accomplish.

Goals like losing weight, boosting health, being more productive, or increasing income all rely on developing new behaviors. We can’t achieve something new by doing what we’ve always done.

The thing is that to develop new habits, we also need to break with problem behaviors. It is said that to break a habit, it takes 21 days, but to sustainably build a new, healthy behavior is a whole different story.

This is where many of us come unstuck. We only have to take a look at the statistics surrounding New Years resolutions to see this. A 2018 study by Columbia University found that 80% of New Year’s resolutions had failed before the end of February.[1]

In the same article, Jennifer Sumner, PHD Assistant Professor of Behavioral Medicine, states:

“There’s been a lot of work done to help people change their behavior, but we really don’t have many successful interventions to help people maintain those changes over time.”

If it’s got the scientists baffled, what chance do we have?

It seems that most behavioral adjustments are focused on the outer, not the inner. This means a person has a list of dos and don’ts (or pros and cons) and tries to take on the new habitual behavior in the same way everyone else does.

What has been neglected here is that everyone is different. This means not all tactics to change behavior will work for everyone.

However, if you’ve been having difficulty changing certain behaviors, not all is lost, and there is a way. It’s about first understanding how you are different and then making the habit adjustments from there.

Below, you will find several reasons why behavior change can be so difficult.

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1. 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.[2]

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[3].

the stages of behavior change

    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.

    2. 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.

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    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.”[4]

    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.

    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.

    3. 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]

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    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.

    4. 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.”[6]

    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.

    5. 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 Iacoboni 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.”[7]

    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.

    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.

    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.

    Final Thoughts

    Behavior change isn’t hard; it just isn’t easy when it’s attempted without the awareness of neuroscience.

    Give yourself a break and notice the improvements you do make step by step. Be flexible as you go and learn from your mistakes.

    By becoming aware of how you are different and adjusting your strategies to fit, the changes will stick. Eventually, you will notice how automatic the new habits have become.

    More Tips on Behavior Change

    Featured photo credit: John-Mark Smith via unsplash.com

    Reference

    More by this author

    Deb Johnstone

    Deb is a professional mindset speaker and a transformational life, business and career coach. Specialising in NLP and dynamic mindset.

    How to Use the Theories of Motivation to Keep Yourself Uplifted How to Survive a Quarter Life Crisis (The Complete Guide) How to Learn Patience to Get Your Thoughts and Feelings Under Control 9 Self Limiting Beliefs That Are Holding You Back from Success How to Make a Plan And Reach Your Goals in Life

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    Last Updated on March 23, 2021

    Manage Your Energy so You Can Manage Your Time

    Manage Your Energy so You Can Manage Your Time

    One of the greatest ironies of this age is that while various gadgets like smartphones and netbooks allow you to multitask, it seems that you never manage to get things done. You are caught in the busyness trap. There’s just too much work to do in one day that sometimes you end up exhausted with half-finished tasks.

    The problem lies in how to keep our energy level high to ensure that you finish at least one of your most important tasks for the day. There’s just not enough hours in a day and it’s not possible to be productive the whole time.

    You need more than time management. You need energy management

    1. Dispel the idea that you need to be a “morning person” to be productive

    How many times have you heard (or read) this advice – wake up early so that you can do all the tasks at hand. There’s nothing wrong with that advice. It’s actually reeks of good common sense – start early, finish early. The thing is that technique alone won’t work with everyone. Especially not with people who are not morning larks.

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    I should know because I was once deluded with the idea that I will be more productive if I get out of bed by 6 a.m. Like most of you Lifehackers, I’m always on the lookout for productivity hacks because I have a lot of things in my plate. I’m working full time as an editor for a news agency, while at the same time tending to my side business as a content marketing strategist. I’m also a travel blogger and oh yeah, I forgot, I also have a life.

    I read a lot of productivity books and blogs looking for ways to make the most of my 24 hours. Most stories on productivity stress waking up early. So I did – and I was a major failure in that department – both in waking up early and finishing early.

    2. Determine your “peak hours”

    Energy management begins with looking for your most productive hours in a day. Getting attuned to your body clock won’t happen instantly but there’s a way around it.

    Monitor your working habits for one week and list down the time when you managed to do the most work. Take note also of what you feel during those hours – do you feel energized or lethargic? Monitor this and you will find a pattern later on.

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    My experiment with being a morning lark proved that ignoring my body clock and just doing it by disciplining myself to wake up before 8 a.m. will push me to be more productive. I thought that by writing blog posts and other reports in the morning that I would be finished by noon and use my lunch break for a quick gym session. That never happened. I was sleepy, distracted and couldn’t write jack before 10 a.m.

    In fact that was one experiment that I shouldn’t have tried because I should know better. After all, I’ve been writing for a living for the last 15 years, and I have observed time and again that I write more –and better – in the afternoon and in evenings after supper. I’m a night owl. I might as well, accept it and work around it.

    Just recently, I was so fired up by a certain idea that – even if I’m back home tired from work – I took out my netbook, wrote and published a 600-word blog post by 11 p.m. This is a bit extreme and one of my rare outbursts of energy, but it works for me.

    3. Block those high-energy hours

    Once you have a sense of that high-energy time, you can then mold your schedule so that your other less important tasks will be scheduled either before or after this designated productive time.

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    Block them out in your calendar and use the high-energy hours for your high priority tasks – especially those that require more of your mental energy and focus. You also need to use these hours to any task that will bring you closer to you life’s goal.

    If you are a morning person, you might want to schedule most business meetings before lunch time as it’s important to keep your mind sharp and focused. But nothing is set in stone. Sometimes you have to sacrifice those productive hours to attend to other personal stuff – like if you or your family members are sick or if you have to attend your son’s graduation.

    That said, just remember to keep those productive times on your calendar. You may allow for some exemptions but stick to that schedule as much as possible.

    There’s no right or wrong way of using this energy management technique because everything depends on your own personal circumstances. What you need to remember is that you have to accept what works for you – and not what other productivity gurus say you should do.

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    Understanding your own body clock is the key to time management. Without it, you end up exhausted chasing a never-ending cycle of tasks and frustrations.

    Featured photo credit: Collin Hardy via unsplash.com

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