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Change – why it’s so hard and what to do about it

For organizations and individuals alike, changing the way we do things is hard. This newsletter will discuss some of the difficulties for individuals and how to possibly make change easier for you. 

A brief primer on human behavior

The human brain has about 2% of our total body mass. And it uses 20-25% of our total body energy. The brain is a busy place. Its main job is to protect us, to ensure our survival. Of course lots of other things happen beyond that, but this is the core function.

Let’s think of the brain then as something that is looking to be as energy efficient as possible. One way to be efficient is to form habits in our behaviors. So once we have learned how to do something as a habit, it takes less energy to repeat this behavior than if we had to consciously think about it.

How strong are habits?

Habits can be very strong. Here are some habitual behavior samples that you can try:

  • Clasp your hands. Notice which forefinger is on top (generally below the thumbs). Now clasp your hands so that the other forefinger is on top. Notice how you feel.
  • Try brushing your teeth with the hand that you don’t generally use. Notice how you feel.
  • Notice which sleeve of your shirt or blouse that you put on first when you get dressed. Try putting the other sleeve on first. Notice how you feel.

We are not talking about addictions here, which are biologically different. And it’s not bad to have habits – this is an efficient way to get through the day, saving that precious brain energy for other things.

But when we want to change something that is habitual to us, our brain will basically be saying: “Just a minute here – that’s not efficient.” So we continue with the old habitual behavior, and at some level feel good about it. Or at least we come up with a good reason to continue doing it, if we have to, and we feel good about this.

With these behaviors, it’s important to remember that they are not “bad.” At some point we created them because they worked and were efficient. But as time goes on, we may need to make some changes and the old behaviors can make us feel stuck.

So what if I want to change the way I do something?

Let’s take an example: I hear from many clients that they want to be better at prioritizing their tasks. That’s a great goal, and one that many people have researched.

A starting point would be to observe what you do that leads you to think that you are not prioritizing as effectively as possible. Those other things that get in the way could be habits that you have developed over time. These could be, for example: putting off those tasks that you don’t enjoy until last. This could be less effective.

Another example could be just doing those things that require you to talk with people and not have to spend time reading lots of documents. These habits could reflect your preferences, and that’s not bad. But in either case, the way through the change is to pay attention to:

  • What I want to do?
  • What I find myself doing?
  • What am I thinking or feeling when I do something different?

It’s important to know just what you are doing, and have as clear a goal as possible. Saying “I want to be more effective” is good, but you need to be much more specific.

In essence, you are collaborating with your brain as an ally, as part of the team. This kind of conscious dialogue can send a message to the deeper parts of your brain that you know that this is a change of habit, and that there is a temporary cost until the new habit gets engrained.

You may even find yourself making “deals” with your brain as a part of this conversation. To me this is a signal that you understand this concept of self-awareness, also called meta-cognition. Don’t worry – your brain still has your survival as its primary task.

It’s important to remember that making some changes requires a considerable time and lots of reinforcement. Be good to yourself as you are in this process – you can’t command yourself to make a change. And as your external environment changes – more stress for example, you might find the old behaviors getting trotted out instead of the new ones. Stay with it, one day at a time.

I still remember the first time that I drove a car in the UK, on of course the opposite side than here in the US. Going along on the straight away was fairly easy. I was able to concentrate and hold the course.

Then I got to a “roundabout,” or rotary as it is called here, where the traffic flow is in the opposite direction. My brain was definitely in survival mode as I struggled with the situation. I might still be there wondering what to do except for the car behind me honking for me to get a move on.

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