Overcoming the barriers to change

Shawn Achor quotes the New York Times’ statistic that a shocking 80% of us break our New Year’s resolutions. I’m surprised the figure isn’t higher than that – changing our behaviour is very hard for most of us. I know that most of my resolutions dissolve by the second week of January at the latest.

In the last blog, we examined how to create a long-term habit or ritual and, in this one, we are looking at other ways we can break old habits that aren’t helping us or start helpful new ones without the use of too much willpower.Shawn Achor points to “activation energy” as the key to achieving this.

Achieving change by increasing awareness

What does “activation energy” mean and how can you apply it? It means that you make the desired behaviours easier for yourself and the undesired behaviours harder. Here are some examples:

  1. Replacing a high activation energy task with a lower one that achieves the same goal
    Many of us, including me, have joined a gym enthusiastically to get a bit fitter and then, a month later, the activation energy required to go there was too great and our visits became less and less frequent. I did this until I realised that I could get fitter through dance and Zumba classes, which I loved, and which therefore required no activation energy at all to attend. I’ve been going to these classes every week for over 6 years now. This may seem like common sense, but, as Shawn Achor says, and as the millions of absentee gym members show, “common sense is not common action”.
  2. Starting an unappealing task
    A client of mine had difficulty getting round to writing a key report, so I suggested he aim to work on his report for just 5 minutes. It worked. It got him over the biggest barrier, which was the thought of starting. After all, only 5 minutes of report writing was not something to dread, whereas the thought of struggling through the whole report was daunting. Once he had started, he found that it was easier than he had thought to continue the task and he ended up writing for 2 hours.
  3. Making undesirable activities harder
    Many of my clients tell me they work very long hours. When we examine their work patterns, I often find that they are constantly being interrupted by emails, texts and messages that they check up to 30 times a day. In order to be able to focus on one task at a time, they now make it harder for themselves to receive messages (ie not leaving their email open all day but rather opening it twice a day, turning off ‘new email’ notifications, leaving their phones on ‘silent’ when they need to focus, leaving their phones in a drawer in the bedroom when working, especially when they need to focus, such as when writing a report).

The beauty about all these solutions is that none of them require willpower, which is easily depleted or deactivated (see the next blog for more on that subject).

For more information on change and habits, click here for information on our lunch and learn session, Breaking bad habits.


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