Why is change so hard?
Anyone who has tried to stop smoking, lose weight or exercise regularly knows this. Sometimes it feels like the goal is unattainable like moving a mountain just a little to the left. Psychologically speaking, there are only three forces available for change:
- willpower (self-regulation)
And of the three, self regulation, commonly referred to as willpower, is the weakest because this resource in the brain can be depleted. Imagine you have a lot of stress at work and you're trying to diet, you will find it a lot harder to “eat healthy” than when you are on vacation. The self-regulation resource in the brain has been assigned to the primary goal of keeping you employed and thus the brain gives less resources to the secondary goal of losing weight.
Now let's consider conviction versus willpower. If for religious or ethical reasons, you don't eat meat, you won't need willpower. However, if you decide to "go vegan" because it's cool and you heard it's "healthy", I guarantee that you will struggle like the man in the photo. If each time you went for a meal you were tempted and had to use willpower, you would eventually eat meat since it is not “sustainable”. Just add it up: 3 meals a day, everyday for 365 days that's 1095 times you would have to turn down a meat option like at a summer BBQ. That's hard.
(I wish I could find a personal conviction against chocolate...)
So what about habit? Habit is the strongest force of all because as researchers have discovered, there is no longer a thought process involved (do I eat meat or not?) but rather it has become hard-wired into your brain. Whatever you need to do is easy because it "happens" automatically. Think about your drive to work in the morning or your drive to the grocery store if you don't work anymore. You don't have to think about how to get there unless some traffic incident forces you to.
Today is Day 102 of the 365 challenge. You probably have read articles like “100 days to change your life” or similar. There is science behind those statements. In order to establish or change a habit (like smoking) you need to ritualize it: do it the same way at the same time everyday until it becomes automatic. Anyone who has taught small children to brush their teeth has experienced this.
The complexity of the behavior which you are trying to change determines the duration. If you're just adding in flossing to your nightly routine of brushing your teeth, it might only take 21 or 30 days. If you are trying to completely change your way of nutrition that is more complex and could require months or even a year.
The bad news is, and I've experienced this myself, if you do not keep up the “streak” of performing the new behavior every single day, if you skip even one day, you reset the counter back to zero. You will have to spend the 21, 60 or 100 days all over again to establish the new habit. It took me 9 months to make a few basic exercises for my back a habit first thing when I get out of bed because I had to keep re-setting my internal change counter because somewhere around day 60 I skipped a day and then another and then another.... Now it's a habit and I feel really weird if I cannot do my back exercises for any reason.
Is permanent change hard?
It depends on your motivation. Pain is a tremendous motivator for change. If I hadn't had such back pain, I might not have kept trying to establish a morning routine to relieve it.
In conclusion, if you want to make a change in your behavior, question your motivation if you really are convinced. Then use your willpower to establish a habit and you will be successful. I know I have been.