Change is hard. Or so they say.
But why is this true, and why do some people seem to embrace change so much more readily, seemingly without effort or consternation?
Why is it that when we learn about a better way of doing something, even when we know it’s the ‘right’ move, we resist? And perhaps more importantly, how can we overcome it?
How we talk about change
Change is really just a simple cost/benefit problem. When the benefits outweigh the costs, we take action. And when the costs outweigh the benefits, we choose inaction.
However, sometimes a change is clearly good for us (‘the right thing to do’), but we have chosen inaction. That creates internal conflict. So, we add some deception to mask the conflict that arises. We’ll use a lot of “I plan to” or “I know I should” or “starting next month I will” language. This helps us in two ways:
It helps us resolve the internal conflict.
Choosing not to do something that could benefit us is actually a form of self-harm, and so saying ‘I’ll do it at some point’ is a way to relieve that conflict. It’s a lie we tell ourselves. After all, if we plan to do it at some point then we don’t have to address the rather off-putting fact that we’ve chosen to harm ourselves.
It helps us relieve social pressure.
When others know that we have information that could benefit us, and see us not acting on it, we can be afraid to look foolish for our inaction. Therefore, we lie to others to remove this pressure. Here again, if we simply state ‘we haven’t gotten around to it’, then we can help relieve that pressure.
Of course we may actually intend to do it someday, but until then the conflict remains. We are either doing it or not. Talking about intentions is a way to claim the behavior without actually taking action. As the saying goes “if you really wanted to do it, it would be done already”.
So those are the devices we use to mask the conflicts that come from this self-harm, but why do we choose self-harm in the first place? If something is clearly better for us, why would we ever hesitate to do it? The answer lies in the biased nature of our cost/benefit analysis.
The good news is that once we recognize it, it’s easy to fix.
The cost/benefit analysis is a simple one. We pile up all of the benefits on one side, and the costs on the other, put them on each side of the scale, and the winner dictates our behavior. If the benefits outweigh the costs, we take action almost immediately. If not, we delay, often with no intention of ever really taking action.
So what goes on each side? Let’s look at each, starting with the benefits.
On the benefits side are known results, improvements, testimonials, observations of others’ results. They are essentially a series of promises. A fit body, longer life, health, a larger bank account, internal peace, organized finances, a better-run business or household, etc. They are desires, promises really. They are wonderful concepts, things we certainly want, and we can often see the concrete data or witness the results in others’ lives. The bigger the benefit, the heavier it weighs on the scale.
However, benefits are never real and tangible. They are only ever promises. They are in the future and the future is just a concept. You can see all the hard data you like, you can witness someone else who got great results, but you cannot experience it yourself until it actually becomes your reality.
On the other side are some heavy things, starting with a few that always bias the scale to this side. Costs are fear-based, and they start with a pretty simple fact: “you are alive right now, and if you change ANYTHING you may not be alive”. That’s how our core brain – the one that keeps us alert to danger – thinks about change. It has one very important job: ‘stay alive’. And since it knows right now you are not dead, it logically seeks to maintain this state. This tips the scale very heavily in favor of inaction when it comes to change.
It seems a bit bizarre to think that we avoid something as mundane as organizing our finances because at some level our brain thinks ‘doing this might kill us’, but that’s essentially what’s going on.
We are also skeptical about the benefits. As we now know, benefits are really nothing more than promises, and we know from experience that some promises are kept and others are not. So we are justly wary about the benefits being offered on the other side. That serves to lighten the benefits side, making them less attractive, and in effect making the cost side heavier.
The costs also have an unknown aspect to them, but this unknown has a compounding effect. We are unsure what true costs lie ahead. The unknown scares us – that core brain again trying to keep us alive. So while we might be able to picture the result, the path to get there is less clear. That puts a heavy thumb on the cost side of the scale, because ‘expending energy and focus’ sure feels like something we’d be doing with a scary predator chasing us. So we’ll avoid that.
Now we may list a wide range of perceived costs “this will take too much time”, “I’ll be uncomfortable”, “too much effort”, “not the right time”, etc, but really these are just ways of articulating that resistance, and resistance is about these core life and death fears.
Tipping The Scales The Other Way
So how do we fix this?
One common suggestion is to make the benefits very attractive. Set big goals, remind yourself of the good that will come from this change, and so on. And that can help some, but benefits will never outweigh costs by doing that alone.
Another option might be to lighten the costs. Make it easier. Perhaps a trial period, or a shortcut, or hire someone to do it for you. Sounds good, but while those will help in the short-term, they don’t affect lasting change. If it ever gets harder, you’ll quit. Just look at how many people stick to exercise when it’s easy to do so, and quit when the weather turns. Less easy, heavier costs, scales tip.
Sometimes a big heavy rock lands on the benefits side, and we get launched into change. This is a cancer diagnosis that changes your lifestyle overnight. It can even be a book or a sudden realization/inspiration. This is a powerful way to tip the scales, but it’s not really in our control. It’s the ‘fight or flight’ version of change – forced into action.
So what’s left? What’s left is a little trick known by only a few. The trick is to turn the scale around. Spin it around so that the benefits side is now closest to you, and the costs are on the other side.
You can do this by simply pretending you’ve already made the change. Tell yourself the story. Imagine you’ve already gone plant-based, or quit the bad habit, gotten organized, finally tackled that personal issue that’s been bothering you, etc. Just decide you’ve done it, even for a few minutes. How does it feel? What things happened to get you here?
Go through the steps as if retelling the story to a friend. Chances are you can see the whole path unfold, how you first did this, then that, and before you knew it you had done it. And it wasn’t all that hard, either. And you’re certainly much happier now for making that change.
You might notice that the resistance disappears. When we do this, even as an exercise, we show the core brain that – much to its’ surprise – we are most certainly still alive! That’s a very big, heavy rock removed from the costs side of the scale. With that resistance gone, even briefly for a mental exercise, we gain some clarity about change. We see it simply becomes about the action – the steps,the story about how we got here, and how it’s part of our daily life. We reveal that it’s simple mechanics, nothing scary about it, certainly not life-threatening. If anything, life-enhancing and exciting!
Just Decide To Stay There
We can do this any time we like – we simply imagine ourselves having made the change and being ‘that person’. And if you visit often enough, one of these times you might just stay. Once you’ve decided to change, the rest is simply the mechanics. The emotional wrestling match, the cost/benefit is over.
Our core brain is too powerful, and fear of dying is too deeply embedded for us to ever favor change. Promises of better will never win. Know this. But know that you can flip things around, and by doing so you skip that entire biased process. Just jump to the other side, decide you’ve done it. That’s the real first step – and the only one you have to take.