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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
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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.

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    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.

    7 Essential Success Tips to Achieve What You Want in Life Signs You Need an Attitude Adjustment (And How to Do It) How to Write a Good SMART Goal Statement for Success How to Use the Theories of Motivation to Keep Yourself Uplifted How to Survive a Quarter Life Crisis (The Complete Guide)

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    Last Updated on July 21, 2021

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)
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    No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

    Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

    Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

    A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

    Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

    In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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    From Creating Reminders to Building Habits

    A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

    For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

    This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

    The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

    That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

    Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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    The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

    Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

    But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

    The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

    The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

    A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

    For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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    But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

    If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

    For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

    These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

    For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

    How to Make a Reminder Works for You

    Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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    Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

    Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

    My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

    Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

    I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

    More on Building Habits

    Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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    Reference

    [1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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