Change is difficult

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Let’s face it! Change is difficult. Research shows that the odds are nine to one against you if you want to change old habits. It further indicates that you can never truly terminate an old, bad habit you can only change it.

In his book ‘The power of Habit’ Charles Duhigg explains that habits consist of a three-step loop – the cue, the routine, and the reward. The cue is the feeling or thought that triggers the habitual behaviour. The routine is the response to the feeling and the reward is what you craved for. In order to change a habit the cue and reward must stay the same but you change the routine. For example when you get sad (cue) you crave for comfort (reward). In order to satisfy your craving you eat a chocolate (routine). The reward you are seeking is comfort and not a satisfaction of hunger. So, when you get sad (cue) you can change your routine of eating a chocolate to phoning a friend and also feel comforted (reward) without gaining weight.

It sounds so simple but why is it so hard? Why after actively trying to change routines I stepped back into the old habit and caused suffering to those around me after knowing that it would be the outcome if I stuck to the old habit? After the incident I went to a yoga class, and as I was lying in the half-pigeon pose, the song ‘Chasing Cars of Snow Patrol’ played in the background. The phrase ‘ If I just lay here, would you lie with me and just forget the world…’ resonated with me and I found myself wishing that if I just lay there the pain would go away.

I realised that this type of behaviour is what is preventing us to change. We are all excited to change but after the first failure we feel so sorry for ourselves and return to the old habit, as it is a comfortable place – like a couch that has already taken the shape of our body – you just snugly fit into it. To get up from that couch (or yoga mat) and face change takes effort. I started to wander what would motivate me to get up from the couch and try once again to change the old habit?

After reading about change and habits I found that the following seven essential elements need to be in place in order to change habits:

  1. Awareness is necessary for change. In the book ‘Leadership Embodiment’ by Wendy Palmer and Janet Crawford they indicate that you need to recognize your habits and triggers before you can choose to change it.
  2. Strong positive emotions are necessary for change. Positive thoughts alone are not enough. A study done by Dr Edward Miller at Johns Hopkins University found that 90% of people that had undergone bypass heart surgery had not changed their lifestyle two years after the operation. Even though they had been told that life-style changes could decrease pain and having another operation. This shows that knowing that your habit is not serving you in a positive way is not enough to change it. A study done by Dr Dean Ornish from the University of California that did report healthy behavioural change in 77% of their participants indicate that the ‘joy of living’ needs to be stronger than the ‘fear of dying’. Janet Crawford explains that our brain needs emotions to move into action. Taking all this into account it seems as if the reward associated with changing the behaviour needs to be associated with a strong positive feeling and image.
  3. Take mall steps. Andrea Shaw, a Master Coach with 18 years experience in coaching, indicates that small steps lead to big change. Celebrating the small victories can bring a sense of empowerment.
  4. Feelings of discomfort are normal. The brain prefers the known to the unknown. Janet Crawford writes that ‘to change our personality patterns brings into question everything that we know about ourselves and how to function with others.’ It is normal that these types of changes will bring about feelings of frustration and unease. These feelings tend to drive us back to our old habits. The trick is to acknowledge that it is normal to feel this way and to re-engage.
  5. A consistent practice is crucial for change. Research indicates that you need to practice the new routine over and over. There are different statistics on the amount of practice it takes to change. Wendy Palmer indicates in her book that a minimum of 500 practice repetitions is necessary to gain a new skill. In his book ‘The Talent Code’ Daniel Coyle reports that 10 000 hours of deep practice is necessary to obtain world-class skills. The take home message is that in order to shift behaviour it is necessary to practise your response or new routine daily over a period of time.
  6. Be kind to yourself. Now that you know it is normal to backslide, to become irritated in the process and that change takes time it is important to engage with yourself with kindness and compassion. When we become angry with ourselves for failing we engage the threat mechanisms of the brain that hindergrowth. On the journey of changing habits it is important to remain curious, be mindful and take care of our bodies.
  7. Support from community. Charles Duhigg indicates that we need to believe that we can change and that things will get better. A community of support can maintain that belief even if things get really tense and we want to fall back on old habits. It is important to share your vision of changing your habit with people who know you and care about you. So that they can support you when you fall back into the couch and need to get up again.

It’s important to note that these are just my thoughts. Studies indicate that there are not one-size-fits all when it comes to changing habits. What we do know is that a habit can be replaced. Change is difficult but it’s not impossible.