Why don’t we change?

In my last post, I talked about how journaling helps you to discover patterns in yourself, and see what you’re actually doing as opposed to what you mean to be doing. In coaching, we call this gap between plans and action a breakdown, and a large part of coaching is how to deal with client breakdowns, where they say they want to change, but do not take action to start changing.

At last month’s workshop for the coaching program I’m in, the teachers introduced a framework for analyzing breakdowns with three components: commitment, competence, structure.

  • Commitment is whether the client wants to change in this way.
  • Competence is about the skills needed to make the change.
  • Structure is about the other factors that can make it easier to change, such as habits, accountability partners, physical environment cues, etc.

I have been finding this framework useful for understanding how and why people don’t change, so let’s dive a little deeper into each of these areas.

Commitment seems like it should be clear – if somebody says they want to change, then they’re committed, right? But a client may say they want to change because they feel they should e.g. “I know I should exercise more” or “I know I should eat healthier”. There’s a big difference between saying that and a client actually committed to making the change happen. In some sense, this is related to Seppo’s comment on the Finding Your Way post that about finding “the pain that you are willing to endure”. Change is hard. It requires sacrifice. Committing to a change is committing to sacrificing something else in your life to enable that change to happen.

Sometimes when we probe deeper on our commitment, we realize that we don’t actually want to sacrifice anything – we just want to live in a world where the change has happened. I used to joke that I wanted to have run a marathon just to say I’d done it, but I didn’t want to do the training to actually run a marathon (fortunately, I actually did run a marathon during my crazy endurance sports year, so it’s now been checked off the list). And that’s how many of us approach change – we want the benefits of the change without having to do the work or give up anything in our life.

  • We want to be healthier, but not enough to actually make the time for exercise, and to eat less crap.
  • We want to play the guitar, but not enough to put in the practice time.
  • We want to read more books, but somehow don’t make the time to sit down and read.

The list goes on and on. So testing the commitment to change is the first step – what are you willing to give up to make this change happen?

Once you decide you are committed to change, then competence comes into play – do you actually have the skills to change? It’s not enough to want the change, you need a plan to acquire the skills necessary. For instance, just saying “I’m going to exercise more” may not work if you don’t know how to exercise in the right way – you may exercise more and immediately hurt yourself because you don’t know the limits of your body. This is where coaches become valuable – somebody who knows where you are trying to go, and can point out why you are not succeeding at getting there (Daniel Coyle also makes this point in his book The Talent Code). So if we have shown that we have the commitment to change, but are failing to change due to a lack of skills in how to change, we can seek out a coach (or books or YouTube videos) to teach us the skills we are missing.

Developing competence will also require deliberate practice, as described by Anders Ericsson in his book Peak. We often give up at even attempting change because “Oh, I’m just not built like that” or “My body doesn’t work like that” or “My brain doesn’t work like that”. But Ericsson’s research shows that this is not true – if we practice with intent and discipline, we can get better at anything. For instance, you may think that memory is genetic – you either have a good memory or you don’t. And yet Ericsson proved that not to be the case with his paper Extraordinary feats of memory can be matched or surpassed by people with average memories that have been improved by training. Once we know what skills we want to develop (with the help of a coach or books), we can develop practice routines that let us improve at those skills. We think of practice as being for sports, but it can apply to any skill or activity – I personally have designed practices for myself to improve at small talk, dating, writing (with this blog), etc.

Finally, to lock in the change will often require structural changes in our lives. There are numerous hacks that people use to make change stick for themselves.

  • Putting on running shoes as soon as you get out of bed. Once you have them on, it feels silly to walk around the house in them, so you end up going for a run.
  • Eating two cups of vegetables at each meal before anything else – it leaves less room for other crap, and so you eat healthier as a result.
  • Tiny Habits, where BJ Fogg of Stanford recommends starting with baby steps – if you want to floss every day, start by flossing just one tooth after a pre-defined trigger event – you start so small you feel ridiculous not doing the habit, but you are building the connection such that every time the trigger happens, you do the habit.
  • Having a writing accountability partner, where you get together and write – it’s about making the time and space to write, and having somebody else who will notice if you don’t show up.
  • Making it harder to eat junk food in the house, by putting it in a different place or behind the healthy food.

The point is that we can do things to make it easier for ourselves to latch new behavior changes and keep them up. After we have the commitment to change ourselves, and develop the skills (competence) necessary to do so, we can build structure in the form of habits, accountability partners and physical cues to make the changed behavior the new default.

I really liked this framework of commitment, competence, structure for analyzing why change fails to happen in people. It’s been helpful to me and those I’ve shared it with to see why change doesn’t happen despite a stated desire to change. Once the gap in commitment, competence or structure is identified, it becomes clearer how to address it to move forward with change. What do you think? Does this model make sense to you?

P.S. As I was finishing this post, I realized that this same framework could easily be applied to organizational change – first, the organization needs to commit to a change (e.g. increasing diversity), then develop the skills or competence to start to make that change happen (trainings in unconscious bias, being more aware of different perspectives), then put in place the structures (inclusive community norms for psychological safety, processes to investigate when there are different outcomes for different groups) to reinforce the change. It seems straightforward, but it will be a good tool for me to remember if I move into organizational behavior work at some point.

3 thoughts on “Why don’t we change?

  1. Also, re: practice & coaching, I think those two things are inextricably tied together. There’s a quote out there from someone, “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes permanent.” So focused, disciplined practice *can* just ingrain terrible habits, making it significantly *harder* for someone to actually improve.

    What you need is practice and *feedback*, from someone who’s in a position to help you improve. That way, you practice, so that you’re not failing on basic execution, but then you have a coach to help you break bad habits before they get ingrained. So the two aren’t even two parts of a process – they *need* to be the *same* thing, or the things don’t actually work.

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