Why Is Change So Hard?

Bad Day / Good Day  -  Graphics by Susan L. Davenport

Bad Day / Good Day  -  Graphics by Susan L. Davenport

Do you ever find yourself so discouraged in your efforts to change your behavior that you want to give up? I do, more often than I care to admit. The last two years have been especially difficult because there were so many behaviors I needed to change.

I’ve always been proactive, so I didn’t hesitate at all. I jumped into action each time I was told we needed to change. I was successful in the changes I had to make to help my husband, but I’m struggling with the changes that I should make for myself. Nothing seems to work. Last week I wanted to shout at the top of my voice: “SCREW IT!” But what good would that have done?

I felt like such a failure. It wasn’t as if I had no support. I have a good support group; people cheering me on, professionals telling me how to accomplish my goals, and yet, I still haven’t been able to do it. What is wrong with me?

That thought stopped me in my tracks. Is this difficulty specific to me or is change hard for everyone? I started doing research, and it turns out that it is extremely difficult to make behavioral changes no matter who you are.

By the time we begin to believe we need to make changes in our behavior, we have been practicing the bad behavior long enough for it to become a habit.

“Everything we do, feel, or think is reflected in circuits of neurons in our brains. Neurons, or brain cells, communicate with each other at a gap, called the synapse. One neuron releases chemicals—neurotransmitters—into the synaptic space, where it is picked up by the receptors of the next neuron. There are billions of neurons in the human brain; each neuron connects with up to 10,000 other neurons, resulting in trillions of synaptic connections. These interconnected neurons become circuits that underlie our habits.

The more we do something—eat nuts while watching TV, ride a bike, play an instrument, study a new language—the stronger the neuronal circuit becomes that supports that habit.” (Mona D. Fishbane, 2015)

No wonder it’s so hard to change. I’ve been eating when stressed my entire life, and it is deeply ingrained in my mind. It will take more than a couple of weeks to change that behavior. So, is that my only hurdle or are there more problems?

“While it’s understandable to think that strongly felt negative emotions like regret, shame, fear and guilt should be able to catalyze lasting behavior change, the opposite is true. … As much as this sounds like a platitude, real change needs a positive platform to launch from; we need positive, self-edifying reasons for taking on the challenge.” (DiSalvo, 2017)

“ … One potential roadblock: too often we're motivated by negatives such as guilt, fear, or regret. Experts agree that long-lasting change is most likely when it's self-motivated and rooted in positive thinking. For example, in an analysis of 129 studies of behavior change strategies, a British research group found that the least effective approaches were those that encouraged a sense of fear or regret. …” (Watch, 2012)

Oh, wow. I had based my need for change on fear. Fear of developing diabetics at some time in the future. Fear of not being able to get around or have good health in my old age. Now it seems I need to rethink the situation and base my actions on positive reasons for change. Instead of focusing on the fear, I need to focus on how good I will feel if I’m physically fit and at a normal weight.

“Feeling overwhelmed by trying to change a behavior—any behavior—tends to foster all-or-nothing thinking. I'm going to charge in and change, and if I fail that means I just can't do it. If you’re up on your cognitive biases and distortions, you know that all-or-nothing thinking is a big one. It straps us into a no-win situation, because your odds of sustaining even the most impressive jolt of momentum to change any behavior just aren’t very good (think of gym memberships exploding in January and petering out by March). If we really want to change, one of the first things we have to do is take all-or-nothing off the table, and purge a few other thinking errors while we’re at it.” (DiSalvo, 2017)

I got that wrong too. My nutritionist had tried to tell me to make one change at a time. Drink more water for at least a month, then incorporate another change, but I hadn’t listened. After all, dieting isn’t such a big deal, I’ve done it for years, I can do it all at once. What I failed to consider was that I hadn’t been successful in my efforts all those years, I’d just yo-yo’d between losing weight when I had the energy to follow the plan and gaining it back when I got discouraged. Maybe I should listen to her.

“Behavior change is a big thing, no matter the behavior, and it’s almost never possible to take all of it on all at once. We have to start somewhere with particular, measurable actions. Big and vague has to give way to small and specific. Rather than “I’m going to start exercising,” it’s “I’m going to start walking tonight after work for 30 minutes down Edgemont Road.” Each specific action is one forkful of behavior change, and a set of those actions engaged over time results in cumulative change. And accompanying those cumulative actions, we need specific goals, which behavior change research suggests are essential to success because we need performance targets to measure ourselves against. And those, too, should be realistic and specific.” (DiSalvo, 2017)

“Studies have also shown that goals are easier to reach if they're specific ("I'll walk for 30 minutes every day," rather than "I'll get more exercise").” (Watch, 2012)

Measurable goals, small enough to be easily achieved. I’ve never been very good at that. I want to conquer the whole problem and do it fast. I guess that is another reason change is hard.

"And it's not enough just to have a goal; you need to have practical ways of reaching it. For example, if you are trying to quit smoking, have a plan for quelling the urge to smoke (for example, keep a bottle of water nearby, chew sugarless gum, or practice deep breathing)." (Watch, 2012)

I thought I had a plan each time I tried to change, but it was always big and very hard to do. Now that I’m learning how my brain works, I need to rethink my plans and make them more realistic.

“If you want to fix your car, you need the right tools. Why should changing something about ourselves be any different? Call them tools or devices or whatever, the point is we need certain reliable go-tos to support sustained change. Changing our diet requires, at minimum, that we find the knowledge about healthier ways to eat and a practical plan for making that happen. Maybe part of the plan includes keeping a crib sheet menu in the notepad on your phone, or daily reminders built into your Outlook calendar. Some of these tools will be specific to a person, while others are widely adopted and available to anyone who needs them. We all need a toolbox of those supports to rely on during the long haul.” (DiSalvo, 2017)

Okay, my geeky self did fairly well on this one. I'm using the Fitbit app to keep track of my food, water, and exercise. It seems to be working well for me when I take the time to use it. The problem I have in this area occurs on days that move so fast it’s hard for me to take the time to log my food. I guess I need to raise the priority of this task and make sure I always have time.

“If you can commit to changing one behavior long-term, and really make it stick, that’s commendable change. But trying to take on multiple behaviors at once is a surefire way to send all of them into a ditch. The resources we rely on to make change happen are limited: attention, self-control, motivation, etc. Trying to change too much places unrealistic demands on those resources and dooms the efforts early on. We forget that the other areas of our lives keep spinning and also require those resources, so even just one additional behavior-change commitment is a big deal.” (DiSalvo, 2017)

"You should also limit the number of goals you're trying to reach; otherwise, you may overtax your attention and willpower." (Watch, 2012)

This one is hard. Yes, I have too many goals, but I only chose one of them. Life, health, and doctors chose the others. If I give up learning to write so that I have more time to focus on losing weight and exercising, I don’t think I will be successful because I will be too unhappy. I’m not giving up my writing. I’ll just have to be mindful of what I’m asking myself to do and give myself a little slack when things get difficult.

“Change is never just one thing, it’s a lot of connected things, and sustained change doesn’t happen without a process that wraps in all of the pieces. You can consult any number of process models for behavior change (like the TTM Model), and spending some time doing that is worthwhile, but the bigger point is that long-term behavior change involves steps. It’s easy to fool ourselves into believing it should be so much simpler, but nothing about behavior change is simple. It’s a tough, process-oriented challenge to move the behavior needle even a little.” (DiSalvo, 2017)

“Research has produced several models that help account for success and failure and explain why making healthy changes can take so long. The one most widely applied and tested in health settings is the transtheoretical model (TTM). Developed in the 1980s by alcoholism researchers James O. Prochaska and Carlo C. DiClemente, TTM presupposes that at any given time, a person is in one of five stages of change: precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, or maintenance.

The idea is that each stage is a preparation for the following one, so you mustn't hurry through or skip stages. Also, different approaches and strategies (called "processes of change" in the TTM model) are needed at different stages. For example, a smoker who's at the precontemplation stage — that is, not even thinking about quitting — probably isn't ready to make a list of alternatives to smoking.

Most of the evidence for this model comes from studies of alcohol use, drug abuse, and smoking cessation, but it's also been applied to other health-related behaviors, including exercise and dieting. Clinicians and health educators use TTM to counsel patients, but you don't need to be an expert; anyone motivated to change can use this model.” (Watch, 2012)


So, according to the research I’ve done, change is difficult for everyone, but it is possible. I just need to be kind to myself, develop a plan with measurable small, specific goals, and not expect dramatic results in a short period. But what happens if I fall off the wagon?

“Relapse is common, perhaps even inevitable. You should regard it as an integral part of the process. Think of it this way: you learn something about yourself each time you relapse. Maybe the strategy you adopted didn't fit into your life or suit your priorities. Next time, you can use what you learned, make adjustments, and be a little ahead of the game as you continue on the path to change.”

They’re right. Each time I’ve fallen off the wagon in the past I’ve learned something. If I focus on what I’ve learned and incorporate it into my plan, it should improve my odds of being successful.

I started writing this blog post because of depression and feeling like a failure, but now I feel energized. Yes, it is going to be hard. Yes, I will have to rethink my approach and change my plan to be more reasonable with measurable goals, but that’s doable. No, I won’t lose all the weight in a month, or perhaps not even in a year, but I didn’t gain it all in a short time either.

Perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned from this post is to be kind to myself. Change is hard for everyone. Saying cruel things to myself only makes me depressed and turns my thoughts toward negativity, and now I know that is a path to failure.

What about you? Most of us are trying to change our behavior in some way or learn some new skill. Did you learn anything today that will help you on your journey? I hope so. Do you have a method that works for you? Leave me a comment – maybe we can help each other.