why change is so difficult (and 9 ways to make it easier).
Sometimes, it’s downright painful.
Because of that, most of us (myself certainly included) tend to shy away from it. If we’re honest about it, “run” from it might be more accurate…
Change is a crucial part of productivity, though. In fact, I’d say it’s vital. If you lack the ability to adapt and grow, your productivity will stall, stagnate, and finally die.
Knowledge and Willpower
There are two main reasons why we don’t change as often as we should:
1. Lack of knowledge. We simply don’t realize that we need to change.
2. Lack of willpower. We know we need to change, but we just don’t have the motivation to do it.
Pain and Change
Common sense would suggest that if we know we need to change, then we change.
Unfortunately, we rarely do.
Why is it so hard to find the motivation to change when we already know that we need to change?
Essentially, it goes back to what I said at the start of this post: pain.
It’s painful to change. It’s uncomfortable. It’s difficult.
And avoiding pain is innate. It comes standard in all human models.
We’re in fact hard-wired to avoid pain.
Why? Because it’s a signal of danger.
When you accidentally touch a hot stove, you don’t have to make a conscious decision to yank your hand away…it happens instinctively. And that’s a good thing. Pain indicates danger, and your body immediately responds by removing the threat.
But pain doesn’t always represent actual danger. Sometimes, it merely represents the possibility of danger.
Which is exactly what the pain associated with change usually is.
We like “comfortable.” Comfortable represents familiarity, and familiarity represents safety.
Because of that, we instinctively associate unfamiliarity with danger. If we’re unfamiliar with the result of a proposed change, we assume it’s an uncomfortable result.
So we avoid it.
The Teeter-Totter of Willpower
When it comes to change, willpower is much like a teeter-totter.
Because we’re hard-wired to avoid pain, and we tend to unconsciously associate change with pain, we avoid change.
Until the pain of not changing exceeds the pain of changing.
Suddenly, when it becomes more uncomfortable to stay the same than it is to change, we find the motivation to change.
But that’s a sad way to approach life.
Fortunately, there’s a much better way than simply making decisions based on which option hurts less: making changes proactively.
As Jack Welch recommends, “Change before you have to.”
Making this shift from reflexive, pain-induced change to proactive change requires some insight into why change is difficult in the first place, though.
Why Change is So Difficult
There are a host of reasons why change is difficult, but let me give you 9 of the biggest ones:
1. We often try to change too much to quickly. Biting off more than we can chew may be the single biggest contributor to resistance to change. Instantaneously trying to go from no change to massive change can quickly send us into a state of shock. Shock often leads to paralysis, and paralysis is the opposite of movement (i.e. change).
The remedy: Make small changes instead. If your goal is to make a huge change, break it down into smaller changes and make those one at a time. Small success leads to more success, which leads to momentum. Momentum propels you toward large, lasting change.
2. We become discouraged after past failures. Because change is difficult, we sometimes fail. What we hoped was going to be a big change fizzles out after only a small initial change. What we hoped was going to be a lasting change turns into a quick, passing phase.
Past failure tends to translate into present discouragement.
The remedy: As Stephen Covey says, “between stimulus and response is choice.” In this case, the stimulus is past failures, and the response is either discouragement or not. In between that stimulus and response lies your capacity for choice.
Instead of reacting to past failures by becoming discouraged, proactively turn past failures into learning experiences. Go back and analyze your past approaches to change. Determine where in the process you broke down and come up with a plan to conquer that step this time.
Almost no successful person in any field hits a grand slam the first time up to bat. Most of the time, “overnight success” involves countless ups and downs along the way. The vast majority of highly successful individuals will not only tell you that they failed along the way, but that their eventual success hinged on failing along the way. The lessons they learned from failing early on taught them how to succeed in the end.
The difference between successful people and everyone else is not in how many times they fail, it’s in how they handle those failures.
As the Japanese say, “fall down seven times, stand up eight.”
3. We fail to align our changes with our values and principles.Change becomes exceedingly difficult when we try to do it in ways that violate our own standards. If our values and principles say one thing and a proposed change says something different, we’ll have difficulty making that change stick.
Because that scenario produces what psychologists refer to as “cognitive dissonance.” It’s like trying to go right and left at the same time or convince yourself that something is simultaneously all-black and all-white.
You can’t do that for very long without driving yourself nuts.
The remedy: If you find yourself in a dissonant state, spend some time doing 2 things: First, re-clarify what your values and principles are. Make them concrete and nail them down in your conscious awareness.
Second, re-frame your proposed changes to better align with your values and principles.
This will allow for internal peace, which will ignite your ability to change.
4. It’s difficult to objectively assess our current status. There are 2 reasons we don’t change: we don’t have the motivation to do it or we simply don’t know that we need to do it in the first place.
Objectively evaluating oneself is extremely difficult. Though we might try to put our biases aside as we look at ourselves, it’s nearly impossible to do. For this reason, as we assess our current situation, we may arrive at the conclusion that no change is needed.
And there may be no conclusion that’s further from the truth.
The remedy: The solution to this one requires a dose of humility, but it’s well worth it: If you can’t objectively evaluate yourself, have someone else do it for you. If you need to know where you stand at work, ask your boss for an objective opinion. If you need to know where you stand outside of work, ask a friend or a family member.
Yes, you might receive some uncomfortable feedback, but it’s far better to know that you need to change than it is to need to change and notknow.
5. We fear that the effort to change might not be worth it in the end. What if we spend a huge amount of time and energy trying to change and then find out that the end result isn’t even worth it? If you’ve ever had that happen to you, you are less likely to attempt change in the future.
The remedy: Fear of the unknown is natural to some degree. Wondering whether our time and effort will actually be worth it in the end is a fairly justified concern…especially if we don’t have much time and energy to begin with.
Don’t let this faze you, though. Not every change you make will be worth it. Many will be, but some won’t be.
Even if the end result isn’t all that you hoped it would be, you will have grown along the way. By going through the process of change, you will have increased your ability to change.
The next time you need to change, the process will be more comfortable to you. And, in my book, that’s a win.
6. Though we may know what the end goal of our proposed change is, we may not know what the actual steps are to achieve it. Sometimes we know where we want to go (and we passionately want to get there), but we have no idea how to get there. In those situations, our desire to change quickly cools.
If I set out to drive from NY to L.A., but have no GPS, no map, no phone, no road signs, and no compass, I’d probably decide to cancel the trip. Could I accidentally succeed in finding L.A.? Possibly…but not likely.
It’d be far easier to forget the trip in the first place.
The remedy: Do your homework, your due diligence, your research before you ever attempt to begin a change. It’s great to know where you’re going, but it’s greater to know how to get there. Don’t blindly set out to change your life. Have a plan before you begin.
And consider allying yourself with people who’ve already made the change you want to make. They know the lay of the land. Let them be your guides.
7. We don’t have the needed resources to make the change. If your goal is to start your own business, but you have no capital to do it with, you’re up a creek. There are certain changes in life that require actual resources. Not having those resources makes those changes very difficult.
The remedy: Bootstrap it until you do have the resources. Dig deep into the well of creativity.
There’s almost always more than one way to do something. If at first you can’t see another way, look again. And again. And again until a new solution becomes clear.
If the only way to start a business was to finance it oneself, few businesses would ever get started. Cue the venture capital (i.e. “Plan B”).
If the elevator’s broken, there’s probably a set of stairs around the corner.
If the change you’re trying to make is worth making, keep trying until you find a way. Period.
8. We’re afraid of relapsing once we make the change. We set out to make a lasting change, but we’re afraid we don’t have the stick-to-it-ive-ness to make it last. When we don’t think we can stay the course, we struggle to change.
The remedy: Accept the fact that you’ll probably relapse once in awhile. And then realize that it’s not the end of the world.
If your current morning rise time is 7:00am and your goal is 5:00am, there will probably be an occasional day when you slip back to 7:00.
Does an imperfect record signal total failure, though? Absolutely not.
What’s important in change is overall forward progress. Two steps forward for every one backward is successful change.
Don’t let the prospect of an occasional slip-up keep you from making a change.
9. We’re not convinced we need to change in the first place. If someone suggests that we need to change, but we’re not totally convinced, the likelihood of us changing is slim to none.
The remedy: Find other people who you would assess as having needed to make the same change a long time ago, but who chose not to. See how their refusal to make the change has played out in their lives. If it’s been detrimental, consider being wise and making the change in your own life.
Spare yourself the negative consequences of not changing.
There’s some truth to Lily Leung’s advice: “When in doubt, choose change.”
The Bottom Line
The world around you changes constantly…whether or not you choose to change with it.
If you want to be truly productive, though, you’ll embrace flexibility and change, learning to harness their powers for good.
A tree can choose not to bend in the wind. Eventually, though, conditions will produce winds strong enough to break the tree if continues not to bend.