Why you suck at change? And what you can do about it?


a 5-minute read

I don’t care how open-minded, motivated, or ambitious you think you are, you suck at changing your mind, your opinions, and most definitely you suck at changing your actions and behaviours! But don’t worry, it’s not just you, everyone sucks at change… and I mean everyone!

So it’s that time of year again when we all start to think about making some changes to our lives. Be that eating a little less, exercising a little more, or just doing something different. However, most of us will not stick to our New Year’s resolutions with some research showing 25% fail within the first week and as little as 8% are ever achieved.

So it’s safe to say that behaviour change is difficult for all of us, and it frustrates the hell out of me when I see physios and other healthcare professionals talking about behaviour change as if it’s something that occurs easily. However, I also get just s frustrated at those who over-complicate the shit out of behaviour change using loads of neuro-psycho-social-science babble that they don’t even understand themselves.

Personally, I think behaviour change is actually pretty simple in theory but incredibly difficult in practice, and so I want to discuss a few of the common issues and barriers that occur when we attempt to change our behaviour such as trying to exercise a bit more or eat a bit less and also look at some simple but not easy ways to try and overcome them.

Lower Your Expectations

The first issue with change is that we all tend to expect it to occur quickly and so we all tend to get very demoralised and demotivated when it doesn’t. Simply put change doesn’t happen overnight, and if it does it usually happens due to things out of our control or despite of what we may or may not have done.

When we do attempt to change things such as eating less or exercising more we often totally underestimate how long it takes for these changes to be noticed. For example, 1 month of eating in a sensible calorie deficit will, if your lucky, lose you about 5lb or 2.5kg in weight, and the effect of this on your body composition will be minimal to negligible.

So to avoid getting demotivated and demoralised set your expectations much lower than you anticipated, and then set them even lower still. If you thought 3-6 months of dieting was going make you look like a toned goddess or a rippling adonis, reset those expections to hopfully looking less like a wet sack of sand or unset custard tart when you take your clothes off rather than Brad Pitt or Kate Moss back in the 90’s

Break The Habit

Without doubt one of the biggest challenges of behaviour change is overcoming our innate ingrained habits. Habits are automatic behaviours that we learn over time, and they can become extremely difficult to break. Our habits can become so automatic that we don’t even know when they are occurring and they can be triggered by things we don’t even notice such as a smell, a location, or the presence of a certain person or object. To overcome this it is important to identify these triggers that lead to our bad habits and either remove the trigger completely or replace the habit with another healthier one.

For example, if you find yourself automatically reaching for the chocolate cookies in the evening once you’ve sat down on the sofa with your cup of tea and your favorite soap opera. Either remove all the chocolate biscuits from your house making it harder to get a damn cookie, or replace those delicious cookies with something else healthier if not a little less delicious. Personally, I find replacing habits rather than trying to remove them a much better strategy as my old ‘primeval lizard brain’ doesn’t feel as hard done by and is less likely to hit the ‘fuck it button’ and give up on it completely.

Self Control

Another challenge of behaviour change is self-control. Self-control is our ability to resist temptation or overcome our impulses, and it can be a significant problem when trying to change our behaviour. For example, if you are trying to quit smoking or drinking, you will have to resist the urge to smoke when you are stressed or in social situations where others are smoking and drinking.

Self-control can be challenging because it requires both mental and physical effort, which can be difficult to maintain over time. To overcome this it is important to develop strategies for self-control, such as setting goals, creating a plan, and enlisting the support of friends and family but most importantly not relying on ‘motivation’ to keep you going.

Forget Motivation

I have discussed the issues with motivation before, explaining how it can be a powerful but short-lasting stimulus to help us pursue our goals and to make behaviour changes. Motivation is incredibly difficult, if not impossible to maintain for the long term, especially if we encounter setbacks along the way. To overcome the issue with motivation I think it’s vital to not rely on it much at all and rather develop some experience and exposure to doing things when you feel the LEAST motivated to do them.

Developing some exposure and self-discipline to ‘getting shit done’ when you’re not motivated is essential to changing your behaviour. Developing some resilience to doing things when you feel like doing them the least will give you the ability to take some control and ownership over your behaviours. However, this isn’t easy and there will be lots of times when you fail to do this, and that’s ok and just as essential to deal with.

How you deal with inevitable failures is another key feature of behaviour change. Those who give up and hit the ‘fuck it button’ won’t change. Those who accept and learn from their failures, don’t beat themselves up, or look to blame others will have more chances of succeeding.

A nice rule for dealing with the inevitable failures of behaviour change such as missed training sessions or eating those secretly stashed chocolate cookies is don’t fail twice in a row. Failing once is to be expected and often due to things outside of your control, failing twice in quick succession is often a choice.

Image from James Clears excellent book Atomic Habits

Ditch The Haters

Another challenge of behaviour change is overcoming the many barriers you will face. Barriers are external factors that can make it difficult for us to change our behaviour, things such as conflicting priorities, a lack of resources, or often a lack of support. Although you should never rely on others’ support to change your behavior, surrounding yourself with people who do support you does make it easier.

However, what’s more important here is you remove yourself as far as possible from those who look to put doubts in your mind, discourage you, or ridicule your attempts for change. Although using the hater’s negative emotions can fuel your fire, it will eventually make you bitter and bring you down to their sad and pathetic level of existence… so “fuck the haters” and keep on keeping on!

So in conclusion, changing our behavior can be a hugely difficult and challenging process, and it is not uncommon for us to struggle and fail to make lasting changes to our behavior. However, it’s not impossible, and you can succeed. Understanding and recognising some of the challenges that arise such as overcoming unconscious habits, developing self-control, not relying on motivation, and dealing with failure will help you.

So good luck with your New Year’s resolutions and although many do fail please take heart that those who do make a commitment to change at this time of year are still 10x more likely to succeed than at any other time of the year.

Happy New Year and all the best for a healthy and prosperous 2023


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