Why Behaviour Change Is Hard


Among the things which interest me is how we make changes – why is it that one person can make a change but another struggles hugely with the same change. What is the difference? And how can we make change easier for everyone?

There are some really interesting things about the brain which explain why we find it difficult to make lasting changes.

There is an area in the thalamus part of our brain called the habenula. Its like a scoreboard, counting the failures we’ve had while trying to change our behaviours – its this scoreboard which is responsible for our motivation to try again. People who are successful in changing their behaviour tend to make changes and try again when things go wrong, rather than thinking ‘this doesn’t work for me’ and giving up.

Here’s a good way to demonstrate how behaviour change works. Link your fingers together on your hands and hold your palms together, notice which thumb you naturally put on top. Now, try to put the other thumb on too. Its weird, right?

Every bit of your being is shouting at you to go back to what is familiar, and comfortable, not to mention that you brain feels pretty tied-up in remembering the keep the ‘wrong’ thumb on top; its difficult to think about anything else at the same time!

It’s like we have a bungee trying to snap us back to the familiar all the time. And it is just the same as what’s going on when we’re trying to change our before lunch coffee habit and replace it with a workout.

So, how do we change? We have to invest in the change; we have to stay conscious of the change we are trying to make, and why, and keep the focus all the time. The old habit never goes away, but remembering to remember the new habit makes it easier and less uncomfortable.

This is where it gets tricky. It sounds so easy, but what happens when life gets in the way and your focus is distracted?

Part of our brain works to make shortcuts to take care of familiar things we can do automatically rather than wasting energy on doing consciously. These are things like driving or brushing your teeth.

Part of our brain works slowly, these are things we think about and do slowly and consciously. But it’s only responsible for about 5% of our decision making.

It’s expensive to our brain to change the habits we have on autopilot, which is why we have to invest so much effort, awareness and consciousness in making the change. Once we’ve reached our brains threshold of consciously doing something, it will become more automatic and stop costing so much energy and attention.

Until we get to that point, we need to keep ourselves off autopilot; we need to remember to remember and not allow ourselves to get distracted. As soon as we get distracted, the fast brain can kill motivation by overriding our conscious desire to change with our well-practiced habits.

It sounds so easy to remember we want to make a change, and perhaps if we had nothing else to think about it would be easy. But we all get distracted, and the key when things go wrong is to assess what happened, make a small change and start again; rather than giving up and letting our habenula tick off another failure on the scoreboard.

You might like to put small routines in place to help you remember to remember. Small routines take much less energy to make than big changes. You might make a routine to always write a shopping list before you go shopping, or you might write a menu plan for the week ahead, or leave your trainers by the door. These sound like small actions, but they are fairly easy to remember to do, and jog your conscious brain into remembering what changes you’re trying to make.

Working with a Personal Trainer can help keep you on course with changing behaviour. Get in touch with me for a chat, I’d love to help.

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