Why Behavior Change Is Hard? Science Explains It

Behavior change is key to achieving any goal or outcome we want. Experts often make this sound so simple, yet for many of us it can feel incredibly hard to accomplish.

Goals like losing weight, boosting health, being more productive, or increasing income all rely on developing new behaviors. We can’t achieve something new by doing what we’ve always done.

The thing is that to develop new habits, we also need to break an old one.

It is said that to break a habit, it takes 21 days. But to sustainably build a new behavior is a whole different story.

This is where many of us come unstuck. We only have to take a look at the statistics surrounding New Years resolutions to see this.

A 2018 study by Colombia University found that 80% of New Year’s resolutions had failed before the end of February.

In the same article, Jennifer Sumner, PHD Assistant Professor of Behavioral Medicine, states:

“There’s been a lot of work done to help people change their behavior, but we really don’t have many successful interventions to help people maintain those changes over time.”

So if it’s got the scientists baffled, what chance do we have?

Even stranger is that some of us are able to sustain behavioral change and form healthy long-term habits whereas others aren’t.

It seems that most behavioral adjustments are focused on the outer, not the inner. This means a person has a list of do’s and don’ts and tries to take on the new habits in the same way everyone else does.

What has been neglected here is that everyone is different. There are no two people exactly the same. This means not all tactics to change behavior will work for everyone.

However, if you’ve been having difficulty changing certain behaviors, not all is lost, and there is a way. It’s about first understanding how you are different and then making the habit adjustments from there.

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Below, you will find several reasons why behavior change can be so difficult.

1. Our Past Affects Our Behavioral Choices

Our well-worn habits and behaviors are a result of our past experiences and the decisions we have previously made.

We may have seen, heard, or felt something, and because of this we decided to believe something about ourselves and the world. Some of the most limiting of those beliefs we form between the ages of 0-7.

All beliefs serve us in a positive way to a point. However, eventually when we want to change or evolve they start to limit us.

This is because our beliefs drive our behavior. If we want to adopt a new habit to drive change, those beliefs start to get in the way.

Our belief system usually drives our behavior from our unconscious mind. This means we are unaware of it and can automatically fall back into the old behavior. We do this even if we don’t want to.

People have even described this is a feeling of being blocked. They know what they need to do, but they do the opposite instead.

The easiest example to give here is with weight loss. If you unconsciously believe you are “not good enough,” it may mean you will choose the piece of cake when you go to the fridge instead of a piece of fresh fruit. This supports the belief and keeps you in your comfort zone.

Taking this belief into the work environment, you may choose to get lost in social media instead of making those follow-up calls. Again, this helps you avoid potential rejection where that belief may be exposed, keeping you safe.

The key to change here is consciousness: becoming aware of any limiting beliefs you do have and making a conscious decision to change them.

2. Our Core Identity Drives Behavior

There are also those ambiguous things we call core values. These are embedded with a whole range of different beliefs.

Our values are the things that are important to us. They are our “why” for who we are and what we do.

They are at the center of who we believe we are and have been with us for most, if not all, of our life. We identify with our values, and they become powerful behavioral drivers.

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A recent study found an important connection between core values and self-control, stating:

“[I]t is possible that expressing one’s core values facilitates self-control regardless of the construal level at which values are expressed.”

Furthermore, the study found that affirming core values worked to counteract ego depletion, leading to a more complete sense of self.

It’s easy to see how this can influence one’s ability to work on behavior change. With a higher level of self-control and a more complete view of who you are as a person, your ability to change increases significantly.

Most of the time, core values operate on an unconscious level, meaning they will affect any decision we make automatically. The above study suggests that making them visible through positive affirmations affects our decisions in a more obvious, positive way.

Absolutely everyone has different values; there are no two people who value exactly the same things. This obviously also explains why behavior change sticks with some people and not with others.

Applying this to the weight loss example earlier, imagine you valued a sense of belonging, which led to concerns about being with people who act similarly to you. Having a glass of water out socially with friends might mean you feel like an outsider. Because of this, you choose a glass of wine instead.

In the work example, maybe you value support, and it’s about being there for people who need you. You want to achieve greater things, but someone needs a hand and you prioritize their request instead of making those essential calls.

The key here is having awareness. Remember our values sit in our unconscious, and not many people have a full understanding of them.

Becoming conscious of your values and the belief system that sits behind them will help you see what needs to change internally. Making those inner adjustments will, in turn, shift your behavior.

3. You Don’t Know Your “Why”

Assistant Professor of Psychology Elliot Berkman PhD calls this your “Will.” This isn’t so much about willpower, but he refers to it as “the motivation and emotional aspects of behavior change.”

It’s about understanding your “why” for change and why specifically it’s important to you.

So many people try to change habits without really understanding why it is so important to them personally.

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Because a friend has done it, you think it might be a good idea for you, too. Or you think it’s something you should do, or have to or need to do. Perhaps you are even doing it because someone else wants you to or has asked you to.

Doing it for someone else can cause what I call the see-saw, stop, and start effect. You start off all motivated, and then you lose interest and stop. You see their disappointment and then you start again.

If you haven’t personally connected to your “why,” your motivation will quickly fizzle out, and you will sabotage your attempts.

Knowing why you personally want the change and why it’s important to you here and now will fire you up. This is about connecting your desire for change to your values so you can emotionally connect to it.

This will make your behavioral adjustments last long-term.

4. You Walk the Path of Least Resistance

Clinical Psychologist Dr. Soph focuses on making neuroscience simple and easily understood. She refers to walking the path of least resistance as “homeostasis,” which is keeping things the same. It’s about staying within our comfort zone where we feel safe and secure and where we can get by without using a lot of energy.

She explains:

“When your brain is repeating a habit (the feeling of ‘running on autopilot’) it doesn’t need to use much energy because it doesn’t have to engage the prefrontal cortex.”

She likens this process to creating a new path in a field. It will always be easier to walk over a path that is already well-worn from use. Starting a new path in a field of tall grass is much more uncomfortable and requires significantly more motivation and energy. Most will naturally choose the well-worn path.

It is the same with any change. And for those of us with a preference for sameness (remember we are all different), it will feel hard to make those new connections.

This is probably where the rule of 21 days comes in, although 90 days may be more realistic if we’re talking about long-term sustainable change.

During those three months our unconscious mind keeps trying to revert us back to the old neural connections because it feels easier.

It’s kind of like a sled on the top of a snow slope. The track that the sled has used numerous times will be much deeper and solid. The sled is steady in that track. Wearing in a new track will take time, and the sled will try to veer back to the old one until the snow becomes bedded down.

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Again, conscious awareness is key. Remind yourself that you are in the process of embedding the new neural connection. Be aware of when you try to revert back to the old track and steer yourself away again.

5. We Are Wired to Mirror Others

Another reason we might find behaviour change so hard is that we are naturally hard wired to imitate. This is because of a small circuit of cells in the brain called mirror neurons.

Neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni explains,

“The way mirror neurons likely let us understand others is by providing some kind of inner imitation of the actions of other people, which in turn leads us to “simulate” the intentions and emotions associated with those actions.”

This may help to explain why we often get in our own way. While trying to fit in with a specific social group through imitation, our brains may lose focus on specific changes we want to make to be different.

These neurons are ultimately key to socialization. In fact, these are the neurons that help us build our social skills. They are the exact same neurons that lead a baby to smile when we smile.

If we have a closer circle of friends or loved ones who have habits that can derail our change, we are likely to revert back. That’s why if we attempt to give up smoking and our partner still smokes, it can be really hard to stay committed.

Conscious awareness of this is essential. If you want to sustainably achieve change, surround yourself with like-minded people as much as possible.

Explaining this phenomenon with those closest to you and asking for their support will also help.

Final Thoughts

Behaviour change isn’t hard; it just isn’t easy when it’s attempted without the awareness of neuroscience.

Give yourself a break and notice the improvements you do make step by step. Be flexible as you go and learn from your mistakes.

By becoming aware of how you are different and adjusting your strategies to fit, the changes will stick. Eventually, you will notice how automatic the new habits have become.

More Tips on Behavior Change

Featured photo credit: John-Mark Smith via unsplash.com

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