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Why Is Change So Hard?

08/12/2016 14:06

With the year drawing to a close, we're soon going to hear the much-dreaded question: "So, what are your New Year's resolutions?"

Because a New Year traditionally means turning a new leaf in our lives, with it often comes a very powerful 6-letter word.

Change.

Kick old habits, start doing something new, become healthier, eat better, exercise more, work less or spend more quality time with our families. Whatever it is that we commit to start or stop doing, it's a personal promise that we make to ourselves to change.

But change is hard.

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Having spent 11 years of my adult life working in Change Management as a Business Analyst for fast-pacing companies, I have lost count of all the training courses I attended that were meant to teach us the right skills to best manage change. Change to operating models, software, department structures, processes and procedures. People are naturally resistant to change, and therefore change has to be managed, and it takes a certain skill set to do it well, to be a good 'change agent'.

And I was good at my job. I could manage change well... when it came to others.

And now, after a very odd year and a couple of accidents derived by what I call 'distracted living', I have left my job, become self-employed and embarked on a new career as a freelance writer. The practical side of things I have managed well, but the biggest change of all, which is to make more time to care for myself (for my mind and body) through the introduction of more mindful habits and daily exercise, is the change that's proving the hardest.

But why is change so hard?

1. You're only accountable to yourself

Projects without a strong and committed Business Sponsor who is accountable for the change generally fail. When change isn't imposed by others or by the circumstances, but rather comes from within and it's you wanting to change, unless you are able to give yourself set goals and targets, you're not going to achieve what you want.

The simple statement: "I want to become more mindful" isn't enough to actually get you there. If that's your goal, you need to break it down into more manageable chunks, and perhaps aim for something like, "by month X I want to be able to dedicate 10 minutes a day to mindful breathing", or "by this date, I want to have read these books and implemented these 5 top techniques". If you don't set realistic and achievable goals and targets for yourself, you won't be able to track progress and therefore hold yourself accountable.

2. Humans are creatures of habit and naturally resistant to change

Change is often for the best, but if you've been doing the same thing day in and day out for years and it (sort of) works, you'll be resistant to learning something new. It will take awareness, focus, commitment, conscious effort, the right mind set and perhaps a considerable time investment too.

Things will get worse before they get better.

I've only just started practicing mindfulness meditation, and I'm so irregular with it that I'm not really reaping the benefits yet. Because I'm not seeing any benefits, I keep being inconsistent with it, and it's a catch-22 situation. I need to invest the time to practice, to be able to make it into a habit.

3. Habits are hard to change

A study conducted in 2009 by Philippa Lally and published in the European Journal of Social Phsychology proved that it takes on average 66 days (more than 2 months) for a new habit to form. That said, the study showed that it takes anything from 18 to 254 days for people to form a new habit, and how long it actually takes depends on the person, their behaviour and their circumstances. In other words, it's a marathon, not a sprint, and you can't expect to change a habit (something that you've been doing in the same way for years maybe) overnight.

The brain tries to optimise its work and likes to take the shortest path to do something - by doing something over and over your brain becomes 'wired' in a certain way, and changing those connections in your brain is possible, but it takes time.

How many times have you found yourself on auto-pilot? Why is it that when we brush our teeth we often come up with new ideas? Because we're not actually thinking about brushing our teeth - we're doing that on auto-pilot, and should you all of a sudden decide to brush your teeth with the hand you don't normally use, you'll find it tricky. Try it!

4. Some changes are hard to measure

Personal and behavioural changes are hard to measure, because thanks to their very nature, change happens very gradually. And it's sometimes hard to look at yourself at any point in time and really understand whether you're any different now to what you were a couple of months earlier. Do you behave and feel differently? If it's something as tangible as knowing that you go to the gym 3 times a week now, and before you didn't, that's great. But do you know whether you've improved your fitness levels? Your health?

Take mindfulness meditation for example. Regular practice shows changes in your brain - it increases your grey matter (the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus), and it reduces the size of the amygdala, which is more linked to fear and anxious emotions. But unless you've been keeping a journal and recording your mental states and emotions, it's hard to say whether you have achieved the change you wanted.

5. Our 'baggage' can hold us back

Lots of thoughts and emotions, as well as the environment we live in, can hold us back when we're trying to change. We need to get ourselves out of our comfort zone, and that makes us uncomfortable and insecure. No one wants to jump without a safety net, without a way to go back to normal shouldn't things work out. Fear and shame can impact on what we do - we can be so scared of not succeeding and 'losing face' that sometimes we don't even try. And if we do try and don't get the results we want quickly, we are tempted to just give up.

So if you're making New Year's resolutions for yourself this year, make sure they are realistic ones. Make sure it is something that you can break down into manageable chunks - small, tangible objectives that you can achieve by certain dates. And hold yourself accountable to those - if you miss them, make a point of either re-planning or reconsidering your goals. And remember that, in the words of John Charles Polanyi:

Change is hard at the beginning, messy in the middle and gorgeous at the end.

Once you get there, you'll be very proud of yourself, and so you should be!

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