Why is change so hard? How to change your habits effectively?

Why is change hard?

Have you ever tried to change a habit that has been bugging you for years, and maybe you succeeded for a few days or weeks, only to bounce back to where you started? Yeah… we have all been there, and I personally know how hard it can be to change. Whether it's to stay motivated, or to remember what you're supposed to do different.
There is a strong scientific reason why change is so hard, And that reason is the neural pathways in your brain. Our brains like consistency and predictability - simply because a consistent and predictable response is an easier and more efficient way to go about your life.
As our brain processes 100s and 1000s of thoughts and emotions everyday, they need efficiency to keep things going smoothly. Most of these thoughts and actions happen automatically - like riding a bike or driving from work to home.
To do this our brain uses neural pathways - they are roadways within the brain - the roads more often used are the ones that require least amount of effort from your brain. And therefore, your brain prefers to use those roads for all the automatic thinking and decisions that you make everyday.

What happens when you try to change?

New behaviors on the other hand puts two demands on your brain: First, you would need to keep the existing habit or thinking in check. Of course, your brain will automatically go to the default, but catching yourself and stopping is important to unlearn that behavior.
Secondly, you would need to know what else to do instead - which can be more difficult than it sounds, because what you’re not familiar with is alien to your mind, regardless of how obvious it might seem to others.
And that’s the #1 reason why change can be so hard. Does that sound like a lot of work? It sure is, but there’s also a way to make it a lot easier - with the right step-by-step approach.
So lets talk about the 5 stages of change with you in a moment, and how to use them to easily bring last changes, but before we talk about that step-by-step approach, there is a very important foundational step that you will need to take. This step lays the strong base upon which you can build your new behaviors or life perspectives.
And that is to have clarity about your motivation. Motivation drives every change in life - and your motivation needs to be strong. In fact, the five stages of change are all based on motivation itself. So how do you go about building a strong motivation then? You need to have clarity about what it is that you are trying to change, and be honest with yourself about why? Why do you want to bring this change?
One of my favorite quotes is: “nothing changes until the cost of staying the same outweighs the cost of changing.”
Any behavior that we have - regardless of whether we like it or not - serves a purpose in our life. We are often quick to dismiss - if we take a moment to reflect and get to know what purpose does our current behavior serves in our life, it becomes that much easier to change the behavior to a new one, while still making sure that those very needs are being met.

Change begins at the end of your comfort zone.
Roy T. Bennett

Stage 1 - Pre contemplation

This stage is the most difficult one, mostly because in this stage the person doesn't think that they need to change. It's not their problem, it's everyone else's. They might think about the change if they are pushed by other people in their life, but there is no internal motivation.
But don't worry;  if you have identified your reason for change - your motivation behind starting this process, the you are most likely already far ahead of this first stage.

Stage 2 - Contemplation

This is the stage when you know that you want to change some habit, but haven’t really made a commitment to it.
You know you should change a habit or a behavior, but the motivation isn't strong. Sometimes you try to make a change, other times you forget about it, and you tell yourself that you don't have time, or it's hard to remember, or you will get started tomorrow - the tomorrow that never comes.
And the real reason behind this struggle in this second stage is that you haven't clear picture of the three things you need to work through this stage: Knowing exactly what behavior or habit is it that you want to change, and knowing what you are going to replace that habit with? And also why? Why should your brain let go of taking care of things automatically and put in all this effort?
But that's exactly why putting words to what you want to change and why is the change so important... what is your motivation behind it?

Stage 3 - Preparation

The third stage of change is preparation. This is a stage that people often skip, which is the reason their change lasts only a short while, but they go back to their old habits.
Once you’re motivated enough to move past the contemplation stage, you likely want to jump right-in. But that's more like taking your SATs or GREs without preparation because you’re so excited and ready to get into your dream school.
Remember - "Success always needs preparation."
And I really hope that by now you have identified and shared what you want to change and why, because guess what.... If you have already done that, then you can get started on this third stage right now, and start getting ready for stages 4 and 5 within the next few days.
So what exactly goes into this stage?
Start by defining your end-goal. Start with the end in mind. Define what you want to change, and how would you know when you’re there? For example, if your goal is to loose weight and get fit this summer - define a concrete goal, such as I plan to loose 5 lbs.
Second, define steps along the way to your goal - have gradations that you can periodically track to make sure that you’re on the right track, and also get some motivation that you’re making process.
Third, and the most important is - decide on a specific start date. It is important to have a specific start date in mind, when you would start working towards the change. And the best window is 5 to 7 days.

Stage 4 - Action

This is stage when you are actively working towards your goals... you are putting in the work, you are actually making the change. A couple of reminders for this stage:
Write down your why, and create a daily checklist somewhere (white board on the fridge, or on your phone):
  1. What behavior or thinking do you want to track
  2. What are you replacing that with? What will you do instead? How do you want to think instead?
This checklist will help you get better and better overtime in recognizing the things that you want to change in that moment, and remembering what you want to replace them with. The longer you stick with the process, better you will get - it's one small step every day.
In addition, it can be helpful to have an accountability person who can periodically check-in with you, to keep you motivated and on the track.

Stage 5 - The Maintenance stage

And finally, you will arrive at the last stage - Maintenance, which is all about maintaining the change that you’ve now achieved.
Forget about the whole 21 days, it take weeks to months for the new habits to really become a second nature - the new automatic road for your brain... where it just becomes effortless. Especially, if your old thinking and behavior has been present for many years.
This stage often involves sticking with your new habits until they become a second nature, just like your initial habits were. Once they are, then you no longer have to think about it or pay attention to it. Your brain will have a new roadmap for all the automatic functioning.

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