6 Reasons Why Behavior Change is Hard…And How to Make it Easier

Right click to save audio version

Why is behavior change so hard? Why do so many people have trouble making the jump from saying ‘I want to do this’ to actually doing it?

In this post, I’ll attempt to answer these questions and more. The kinds of behaviors I’ll address in this article are mostly positive ones relevant to my awesome readers.

I’m more interested in showing you the strategies that will help you reach your creative goals rather than in teaching you how to quit eating cookies in bed.

If you’re in a hurry, here’s the gist: Start by establishing a pattern of action. Use information as a springboard.  Aim for small, rather than gargantuan wins. Make sure you’re starting this behavior for a positive reason. Set up your physical environment in a way that reduces Resistance. Use triggers to keep the new pattern of action in your mind.

Flaming Trumpet

1. Behaviors are patterns of actions

We think that we can make up our minds and decide to do something. For some people and some behaviors, this works, but most people find behavior change isn’t so simple.

A good way to think about behavior is to take a bird’s eye view of things. Imagine looking at your actions on a timeline. Do these actions occur on a regular basis? Do you see a pattern?

Your behavior re: a certain skill is nothing more than a pattern of action.

Like any skill, you have to start with basic stuff: defining what patterns you want to establish and what actions you need to take.

When you start taking action, you will probably encounter Resistance in one of its many guises. The key to defeating resistance and taking action is to focus on getting several small wins under your utility belt.

Think about an RPG like Final Fantasy. When you start out, do you head straight to the enemy’s lair and battle Garland or the Four Fiends? Of course not. You start by stomping slime creatures in the forest near your village. Only when you gain XP by establishing a pattern of successful wins   against little enemies can you start taking on bigger foes like Wyverns and Golems.

RPGs aren’t for everyone, but they can teach us a valuable lesson:

Build your XP (experience points) before the big battles.

Example:  to establish a pattern of daily writing, you might set a goal to write 1000 words a day. But if you’ve never built the skill of hitting this goal on a regular basis, you’re likely to be frustrated. The better path is to start with 250 words a day for X number of days then work your way up.

Most Nanowrimo participants don’t survive the first week. The attrition rates are mindboggling. Why? Because unprepared participants lack the XP necessary to write 1,667 words per day for 30 days; they haven’t established a pattern of action that makes this goal reachable.

2. Information without Action is Worthless

Information is only as useful as what you do with it. Consuming information is a starting point for behavior change, but it’s not even the first step in behavior change.  Sure, information may influence your behavior a little bit, but any effects are likely to be temporary.

You can know something and still do nothing.

Simply reading about what you want will not make it happen. You have to put in the work and effort to internalize the information.

Information alone is of little value. You find value when you apply this information. Creating value can be anything from committing to memory what you’ve read to setting a couple simple goals and creating an action plan.

3. We Overestimate What We Can Do…and end up doing nothing

Imagine picking up a trumpet one day and expecting to play like Miles Davis the next. Kind of a silly thought, right? But why? Besides learning the basics like fingering and scales, your embrasure needs time to develop. You have to learn how to breathe, to properly move air. You have to learn how to listen.

And most importantly, you have to have a pattern of action.

Yet, too many people attempt to make big changes without a solid pattern of action. They pick up a horn and expect to hear Bitches Brew. They’re lucky they hear something that sounds like a goat.

With pneumonia.

The result? Utter disappointment. Frustration. Discouragement. A feeling of “this is impossible.”

A better solution is to define one small component of the behavior you want to change. Again, focus on small wins and XP-building.

4. Fear-Based Behavior Change Doesn’t Work

This sounds nauseatingly  Pollyana-ish, but it’s much easier to change a behavior when you have positive reasons to change a behavior (‘that’d be awesome!’) rather than negative reasons (‘I know I should’).

In short, guilt and fear are lousy motivators.  This, according to a literature review from Professor Paschal Sheeran from Sheffield University.

Individuals are more likely to change their behavior when they have benefits to gain, rather than negative effects to avoid. Nobody likes doing things because they feel like they have to.

Example: Let’s say you’re contemplating taking up a daily walking habit. Approaching this from the ‘I should walk so I can get some exercise because that’s what doctors say’ probably won’t work.

More effective: ‘I’m going to walk because I’ll feel better, have more energy, and enjoy the fresh air.’ Even better, ‘I have nothing to lose and everything to gain by going for a walk.’

Again, it’s easier to change your behavior when you have a damn good (positive) reason for doing so.

5. Your Physical Environment May Not Be Conducive To Change

Change is hard. Your physical environment can make this harder. Or easier. Resistance is a powerful force. The least you can do is set up your physical environment in a way that reduces resistance.

Some factors you can control. Others you can’t. If you live in Antarctica, you’re probably not going to develop a habit of swimming. Even daily walking is an ordeal. Since most of us don’t live in Antarctica, we need a better example.

Let’s say you want to paint but you live in a tiny apartment full of furniture. Going from one end to the other is like running a gauntlet. The windows are boarded up. You don’t even have any brushes. Is this space conducive to painting? For some, maybe, but most people would find it easier to do something (anything) else.

Unboard the windows. Create a workspace. Stockpile paints and canvasses.

You have to make things easy on yourself. Choose a behavior that’s possible to do in the environment you’re in, then figure out ways to minimize your start time.

6. Behaviors Require Triggers

Let’s face it: we can get excited about some new thing one day, but a week goes by and that excitement fades. Exciting new stuff pops up on our radar and that new behavior we had every intention of including suddenly seems less important.

After the enthusiasm fades, what do we have to help us take action on our new behavior?


According to BJ Fogg, motivation is short-lived, but triggers cause us to engage in a behavior. To paraphrase: put triggers in the path of motivated people and you’ll get the behavior you want.

In sales and marketing, triggers include prompts, calls to action, requests, and offers. Without such things, sellers would move far less product.

In your own life, you can create triggers by

  • marking stuff on your calendar.
  • setting up email reminders to engage in some behavior.
  • writing your actions on cards and placing them somewhere you can see them.
  • keeping your supplies/materials/tools in easy reach.


BJ Fogg’s work at the Stanford Persuasive Tech Lab is fascinating and highly recommended.

Subscribe as you like

If you found this article value, why don’t you subscribe to email updates? It’s easy, free, and you’ll receive convenient posts right in your inbox.  Or you can get yourself setup with RSS.  Whatever’s good for you.

Talk to me

  • Do you have any behavior change strategies you’d like to share?
  • What’s been the hardest but most beneficial behavior you’ve ever consciously developed? For me, it’s been the daily writing habit.
  • You’ve made it through this article. Nice work. But I have to ask you: how will you use what you’ve just read?
  • Bitches Brew or Sketches of Spain?

Photo credit: infrogmation

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Emilie Wapnick March 16, 2011, 4:42 pm

    a goat with pneumonia.. heh..

    Great tips Seth! One thing I learned that helped me big time is that it takes 21 days to develop a new habit. The problem is that a lot of people give up before the 3 weeks are up. But if you can just make it through those 21 days, it’ll get worlds easier. I’ve used this approach with my morning jog and with eating habits in the past and it’s worked great.

  • Jordan Bowman March 16, 2011, 6:31 pm

    Great article, Seth, some really good points. I second what Emilie said about how it takes 21 days—it requires some time, there’s no magic bullet.

  • Anonymous March 16, 2011, 11:11 pm

    bleet bleet

    21 days is a good rule of thumb for getting started, but I believe maintenance mode requires something more.

    About 5 weeks before I left Korea, I too started and maintained a daily jogging habit. When my contract ended and I went to Thailand, this habit stayed in the ROK.

    Anatomy of a habit fail: I allowed a new routine to smash my old habit to tiny forlorn bits. The habit had a little hold on me, but not enough to prevent me from weaseling out of it.

    Had my location remained the same, I probably would’ve kept with it. Plus, the environment (38C/100F) made outdoor exertion painful (that’s my excuse, anyway).

    OTOH, my AM coffee/writing routine has followed me all over the place. Can’t/won’t let that one go.

  • Angela Geise March 17, 2011, 3:03 am

    #3 Is my most common fail. I’ll decide to do something and assume I can pick it right up and start running with it, but I fail to realize learning curves and time. Silly me.

  • JALINEBERRY March 17, 2011, 3:23 am

    I have to applaud the Final Fantasy analogy. Well done. If only I could bring myself to take all of this good advice.

  • Tom March 17, 2011, 6:01 pm

    The point about triggers is such a good one. I’m fairly forgetful so I have to be constantly reminded of things, I’ve set up email and SMS alerts and these are very useful for reminding me to do things.

    Fear and guilt is another factor I am looking at differently when it comes to goals. It’s so easy to beat yourself up for not engaging in a goal when you should – positive reinforcement and celebrating the small wins can go a long way to helping us.

  • Anonymous March 18, 2011, 7:18 pm

    Yeah I struggle with that a lot myself. For me, it helps to only focus on the next couple steps. For example, I have one site that I had high hopes for but hasn’t done anything.

    Turning it around is a big job and for about two months now I’ve simply ignored it. Last week, I decided to write (then rewrite) just one article. That one article has gave me just enough of a push to get things unstuck. One article= a little win.

  • Anonymous March 18, 2011, 7:25 pm

    No worries, the Buckethead version is actually pretty cool. I love Sketches of Spain, especially for morning music, but BB can put me in a kind of mindset that few other records can do.

    Guilt triggers: You say it’s subtle, but that’s pretty huge. Good work.

    I agree: it’s hard to talk about this internal monologue stuff without giving off the aroma of charlatanism…but this stuff is real and makes a huge diff. Our subconscious is gullible as a late night infomercial viewer. If we convey certain messages to it, day after day, it’s operations/actions/reactions will reflect the content of those messages.

    tl;dr: We can create our own internal propaganda.

  • Anonymous March 18, 2011, 7:28 pm

    Why not take the FF approach and focus on leveling up your skills in just one of these areas?
    Ex: 250 word/day for 1 month = +3 discipline and +5 writing. That’s enough XP to move to the next level, yes?

  • Anonymous March 18, 2011, 7:36 pm

    Email alerts have saved my ass more than a few times. I used to have my email alerts forwarded to my phone. That was useful.

    Fear and guilt are powerful forces, but so is positive reinforcement. It feels so much better to celebrate what you have done than feel crappy about what you haven’t done. I need to find some other studies and research on these differences, because this topic is fascinating.