Why is change so difficult and how can we make it easier?

I’ve been trying to be tidy ever since my mother first sent me crawling back to my bedroom to battle with the mountains of jumbled clothes, books and empty crisp packets. My attempts always started well, enthused as I was with the vision of the new ‘reformed’ me being able to locate my keys quickly and easily in the beautifully clean lounge. So what went wrong? In short, I didn’t have the willpower to sustain my plans.

What I have learned over the years since that first incident is that the more we can avoid fighting against ourselves (our desires, our needs and our personality), the happier our lives will be and the easier it will be to reach our goals. This means avoiding having to battle with our willpower or forcing ourselves to be someone we’re not.

So how do we change without relying on willpower? In this series of 6 blogs, we explore approaches that our coaching clients have found to be particularly useful:

  1. Establishing long-term habits or ‘rituals’
  2. Minimizing the barriers to change
  3. Achieving change by increasing awareness
  4. Achieving change by playfulness
  5. Breaking bad habits
  6. Achieving change by managing competing commitments

We’ll discuss each of these in turn over the next two months, but let’s start with the first one.

Why is change so difficult and how can we make it easier?
“Will and discipline are far more limited resources than most of us realize. If you have to think about something each time you do it, the likelihood is you won’t keep doing it for very long.”
Tony Loehr & Jim Schwarz, ‘The Power of Full Engagement’


How to establish a “ritual”

Psychologists Loehr and Schwartz suggest building long-term habits that they call ‘rituals’ . These are actions that become automatic as quickly and effortlessly as possible and then require no willpower at all to sustain them. It’s just like brushing our teeth – we do it automatically every day, without even thinking.

Tips for creating lasting rituals:

  1. Choose only one initial change you deeply care about and make sure it is realistic and doable (For example, let’s take the case of Jim. He chose the ritual of spending more time with his family, as this was very important to him. Being realistic about the demands of his job, he decided to commit to getting home by 630pm two days a week, rather than every day)
  2. Focus on what you will do rather than on what you will stop doing, as not doing something requires continuous self-control. (Jim focused on leaving by a specific time, rather than on not staying late in the office)
  3. Be very precise about the behaviour and specific about the timing (Jim chose Tuesdays and Fridays as the days to leave the office by 530pm and blocked these times off in his diary)
  4. Hold yourself accountable at the end of every day – have you done what you committed to do? If not, assess what you can change to make it work, rather than judging or punishing yourself. This is key to success. (Jim had to let people know that he wouldn’t be around after 530pm, as, otherwise, they would put late meetings in his diary).
  5. Be consistent – it takes between 30 and 60 days of doing an action consistently to make it into a ritual (After a month, it became much easier, and Jim adapted his ways of working too, knowing that he couldn’t extend his working day indefinitely to cover the workload)

Over the years, we’ve helped many of our clients to create different rituals – from exercising more to managing their time better; from eating more healthily to stopping themselves being constantly distracted by emails, texts and messages; from anger management to taking more time to plan and reflect. Now it was time for me to face the big challenge. Could I really become tidier after 50 years and so many failed attempts?

Firstly, I thought about why it was so important for me. I’m keen to create a happy home for my husband and I saw that he seemed more relaxed and calmer in an uncluttered environment. This was a big motivator.

Secondly, I chose one very simple and doable ritual that I could do that would make a big difference – to put everything away as soon as I had finished using it. Every time. Every day. For 30 days.

It worked very well – I became much tidier and, 9 months later, this habit has continued. In the meantime, please do share your own experiences of creating rituals and what you have learned over the years.

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

1 Loehr, J and Schwarz, T, (2003) The Power of Full Engagement, p14, New York


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