Why Change is Hard

by | 12 May 2014 | Change

Change isn’t easy, as anyone who’s tried to lose weight, stop smoking, exercise more, start a blog, learn a new skill or sport, improve a technique, move house or go through an organisational restructure will tell you. But I’ve oftened wondered why, when we so often know that changes can bring better things, it is so hard? Surely as human beings, our ability to adapt, improve, grow, change is at the heart of our “success” as a species. So why does it often feel so tough? I’m not a psychologist, nor a neuroscientist, but I am very curious about the ‘why’ of such things, because I believe that with better understanding I can continue to find better ways to help people to make the changes they want in their life. Some of those ways are contained in my ecourse How to Change and Make it Stick, but today I just wanted to share some of the things I’ve been learning about why change is hard and what happens in our brain when we try to change something.

As I understand it, memory and it’s relationship to conscious attention plays a strong role. Our working memory, activating the prefrontal cortex (an energy intensive part of the brain) takes in new perceptions and ideas and compares this to our other, older information. Working memory fatigues easily.

Different parts of the brain – the basal ganglia -are invoked by routine and familiar activity which don’t require conscious attention. This is where neural circuits of longstanding habit are formed and held and requires much less energy than working memory. Trying to change any hardwired habit requires a lot of effort in the form of attention. The effort is uncomfortable, and so we naturally try to avoid it. Also trying to change a routine behaviour sends out strong ‘error’ messages in the brain that something isn’t right (an ‘error’ being the perceived difference between expectation and reality), and this signal can readily overpower rational thought. So our expectation shapes reality. And the brain changes as a function of where an individual puts their attention – the power for change comes in the focus.

In addition, we get a rush of energy associated with a moment of new insight (an ‘aha’ creates a complex set of new neurological connections). This rush may well be central to facilitating change and fighting the forces against it, including the fear response of the amagdyla. However, as everyone has a unique brain architecture, one persons ‘aha’ will not be anothers. We need to create our solutions and answers from within, and create attention density through self observation. In other words, someone else can’t just give us ‘the answer’! Which is why coaching is a more powerful and lasting intervention to help bring change as opposed to, say training alone.

So when it comes to change, this implies:

You get what you focus on

You need to focus on solutions rather than problems

You need to pay sufficient attention to the new ideas, but ultimately the connections you make need to be your own through your own self observation (take an ‘answer’ and make it yours).




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