The Science of Behavioural Change
From a Coach’s Perspective
Part 1- Why is Change so Hard?
“The road to hell is paved with good intentions”
It is already the middle of January and this time of year reminds us of the unfortunate reality that making positive change last is, quite simply, hard. Research into how many people actually stick to their New Year’s resolutions has provided overwhelming evidence that making lasting positive change in your life is by no means straightforward.
According to research the drop off rate for those who had made New Years were:
- 66% had given up by the end of January
- 80% had given up by the middle of February
- 92% had failed to meet their goal by the end of the year
Other research found that the 12th of January was the day most people capitulated on their goal or resolution!
Change is Often Simple but not Easy
The intended change you want to make often sounds very simple, something like:
- “I am going to eat healthy this year”
- “This year I am going to get fit”
But as anyone who has ever tried to change their ways for the better will know, creating lasting positive change is not easy to maintain. Those well intended New Year’s resolutions and goals can easily fall by the wayside as life throws expected and unexpected obstacles in your path to progress before the new healthy behaviours and habits get a chance to stick.
Once you get back to your busy lifestyle and start to meet the challenges the new year throws at you it can be very easy to slip up and start to comprise on your good intentions:
– “I slept in, skipped breakfast and now I am really hungry and I forgot to bring my healthy snack got work! I’ll have a coffee and a pastry today instead but just this one time and then I am back to my healthy diet tomorrow”
- “I was going to go for a run this evening but now it is raining heavy now and so grey and miserable outside. I don’t have suitable running clothes for the rain anyway and there is that new series starting on TV I want to watch this evening. I’ll skip my run this time and go for an extra run at the weekend instead”
The Science of Change
Luckily there is a better way. There is a science to behavioural change but most people who attempt to change or modify their behaviour fail because they don’t know what they are up against! Most people go with the traditional model of relying on willpower and self discipline, which of course has proven to be highly effective (see statistics above).
If you really want to be successful with implementing your goal or resolution this year your best chance will be by hiring a coach. A good coach is an expert in behavioural change and knows what it takes for lasting positive change to be effective and how to help you be successful.
However, if you are not yet ready to hire a coach it is a good idea to at least learn:
- Why change can be so hard
- What you are up against when attempting long term behavioural change
- The best mental and physical strategies for attempting lasting change
Know Thy Enemy
The statistics mentioned above warn us to tread carefully when setting goals and making resolutions. Simply put overcoming old habits and habitual ways of thinking and doing things is not easy as it might seem.
‘Any good coach will also know the enemy of change, the saboteur of success, and the reason most positive change fails – habit!’
Any good coach knows that creating lasting change is a process that requires time, effort, commitment, repetition and strategy to persevere long enough against one’s ingrained habits until the new way of being has become as automatic as brushing your teeth before bed. Any good coach will also know the enemy of change, the saboteur of success, and the reason most positive change fails – habit!
‘Your enemy on your quest to create positive lasting change are the existing habits and automatic behaviours that have become hardwired into your brain’
Your enemy on your quest to create positive lasting change are the existing habits and automatic behaviours that have become hardwired into your brain. You can consciously commit to making an important or desired change in your life but as you attempt that change you will probably find yourself falling back in to your old ways and bumping into existing habits and behaviours that hold you back from your goal.
Most Behaviour is Unconscious
Modern neuroscience shows us that about 95% of your behaviour is unconscious, meaning most of your behaviour is a lot more habitual than you realise. Don’t believe me? Try this quick exercise to find out for yourself:
- Fold your arms.
- Now look down at your arms and notice whether your left arm or right arm was on top.
- Now fold your arms again but this time make sure the opposite arm
- Notice how different or uncomfortable it feels the ‘wrong way’ around.
You have probably never realised before that your brain has a little program that runs unconsciously every time you cross your arms as well as thousands of other behaviours. Simply changing one element in your unconscious program (crossing your arms the opposite way than usual) feels weird, different or even uncomfortable!
‘To be successful with creating lasting change in your life you will have to overcome your old habitual behaviours and create new habits that support your goals and intentions.’
This is important because it is a good example of just how habitual our lives and behaviours are. To be successful with creating lasting change in your life you will have to overcome your old habitual behaviours and create new habits that support your goals and intentions.
The Neuroscience of Habit:
Every time you repeat a behaviour or a habit, neurons in your brain fire together and eventually wire together in anticipation of repeating the behaviour again and again. When habits form they are hardwired into the neural network of the brain like motorways through a dense jungle.
‘When habits form they are hardwired into the neural network of the brain like motorways through a dense jungle.’
Starting a new habit or healthy new behaviour is like hacking a new path through a dense jungle in your neurology. Because the neutrons have not fired together that often they are not yet wired together. However, the more times you repeat the new behaviour the more you clear the new path making it more like a paved road and eventually a motorway.
‘Starting a new habit or healthy new behaviour is like hacking a new path through a dense jungle in your neurology.’
However, at the same that you are trying to build a new habit with repeated action you will also be competing with the existing motorway of the old habit that has been engraved in your brain. This can easily cause you to slip back into an old behaviour or habit you are trying to stop.
It is much easier and far less effort for the brain to simply flow the signal, like traffic, down the existing infrastructure of the existing motorway rather than patiently spend more time, energy, focus and effort creating the new path. This is usually why people ‘fall off the wagon’ and this is why it takes time and repetition to form new healthier habits.
Use it or lose it
With sustained effort over several months (at least 3-6 months) the new behaviour will become the new automatic healthy habit and the new motorway in your brain. What started out as a freshly hacked jungle path will have become the new neurological motorway that hardwires your desired behaviour into your brain. Meanwhile, the old motorway (old habit) will be growing over and becoming reclaimed by the jungle because it is not being used and the longer time goes on the less likely a relapse will occur.
So if you are attempting to create positive lasting changes in your life remember these principals:
- Creating lasting change is not easy
- Creating new habits require you to form new neurological pathways in the brain
- Existing habits and repeated behaviours are like motorways that compete with the new pathway for traffic
- It takes a minimum of 3-6 moths for the new behaviour to become the new automatic behaviour
Design your Life
‘Once you learn how to change effectively and efficiently and combine that with what you want to change in your life you will literally be designing your life.’
‘Do not be discouraged however, learning how to successfully change your self and your behaviour is holy ground. When you know what you are doing changing your behaviour is a lot easier than you might think. Once you learn how to change your behaviour effectively and efficiently you can combine that with what you want to change you will literally be designing your life.
Success breeds success and each successful change you make has the side effect of increased confidence and belief in self to do and be more. Just like learning to ride a bicycle, once you master how to do it, you will want to keep doing it.
In Part 2 you will learn about the process of change and how to navigate that process until you have reached your goal.
“Be patient with yourself. Self growth is tender; it’s holy ground. There’s no greater investment.”