Why Is It So Hard to Change Our Behavior?

Here is a simple challenge:

Suppose you are in the habit of waking up at six in the morning. Try waking an hour earlier. Not just one day – every day. Easy? Difficult?

Sustained change is one of the most difficult things to accomplish. Why?

  1. Negative emotions impact us in counter-intuitive ways. Strange, isn’t it? Suppose I am 30 kilograms overweight. The negative emotions that engulf me should make me do something about it. That is just not true. On the other hand, suppose I am in good shape. The probability of my binge-eating except on a rare occasion is very low. A massive amount of evidence suggests that the least effective change strategies hinge around fear and regret. We need a positive platform for desirable change to occur over a sustained time-frame – I want to do something good to society, I want to be a good role-model for young people.
  2. We try to eat the elephant. Consider the laudable goal – I want to do something good to society. That is such a huge goal that we will never get around to doing it. Instead, break it into manageable parts. I will keep the house spotlessly clean. I will never, ever shout at the children/spouse. If we can achieve these, we can go to the next level: I will not throw garbage except into the specified bins. I will never shout at my colleagues. These are not only manageable, they are measurable (a journal and a pencil are the only things you need). Over time, you accomplish bigger and better things and ultimately you can achieve even the most audacious goal.
  3. The all-or-nothing thinking. Think of all the new year resolutions that you have made till now. You don’t have to tell anyone. How many did you manage to sustain till February? Or March? We have a cognitive bias called all-or-nothing. Unless we “eat the elephant” we tend to think we have failed. Using this example, no student should be declared as having passed unless she/he obtains 100% in every subject (in fact, this existed about a hundred years back and is called mastery learning). If at all we want to succeed, the first step is to dump the all-or-nothing thinking. We will stumble, we will fall, we will fail – that is life. If we can stand up and try harder, we can succeed. The moment we think “Since I did not achieve something in its entirety, I am a loser” we indeed become losers.
  4. Neglecting the tools. You are driving on a highway. The car hits a nail or other sharp object and you have a punctured tube. If you are not carrying the tools to change the tire, how will you proceed? Changing behavior is similar. If your goal is to run (not necessarily win) a marathon, you cannot start running 42 kilometers straightaway. You must start with say 3 kilometers and gradually increase. You must exercise and build your muscles. You must find a running club and join it. Running, contrary to what you may think, is a social activity. You must eat the right type of food. Without these “tools” how will you ever run a marathon?
  5. Underestimating the effort. Any change in behavior requires considerable effort. It involves processes. Remember the processes required to run a marathon? At some point, you may realize that maybe the marathon is not the right goal for you. In the process, if you make running five kilometers every day as a habit, it is a significant success – one that you need to celebrate. Don’t take on multiple changes – they are guaranteed to fail.
  6. We need commitment.

What are we going to do?

How are we going to do it?

Do we have the physical, mental, and emotional resources to see it through?

Most change processes fail because they lack commitment – an unswerving dedication to something you believe in. Don’t try to change because your friends have started something. Or someone put out a grand success story on social media.

Be the change you want to be because you are committed to making it happen.


Here is wishing your change efforts success.


Dilshad and Krishna


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