Change is difficult. It doesn’t matter whether it involves rolling out a new corporate initiative in a large company or trying to eat healthier for a New Year’s resolution. It’s not that the change itself is complicated. Oftentimes, it’s very simple. What’s hard is breaking out of habitual behavior.
There’s a scientific reason for that, as it turns out. As well-known business authors and academics Chip and Dan Heath point out in their book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard by (Broadway Books, 2010), making conscious judgments about what to do and how to do it requires using a mental resource — the part of your brain that makes executive decisions — that is very easily depleted.
Let’s say you’ve been smoking for 20 years and want to quit. The main problem is not the fact that you enjoy smoking or the addictive properties of nicotine, according to the Heath brothers, although those could play a role. The issue is that every “touch point” you have with cigarettes is ingrained in your consciousness so that you can do it automatically and practically without effort. You pick up a pack when you go to the drugstore or supermarket. You carry it around in your pocket. You take periodic breaks from working to smoke. You light one up after meals. And all of this is done without your brain actively telling you to do it.
Conversely, giving all of that up requires the kind of mental fortitude and focus you might associate with solving quadratic equations. You may stay strong in your resistance to smoking for a few days, but there’s a very good chance you’ll backslide at some point. And it’s not because you’re weak or a bad person, a common sentiment among people who beat themselves up for falling short of goals. It’s because human beings are wired to be creatures of habit. Being completely cognizant of what you’re doing, or thinking deeply and creatively about something new, is the equivalent of running an automobile engine at high RPMs. It’s fine for quick acceleration, but you’re going to burn out your brain if you keep it in that state over an extended period of time. Continue reading »