How to stay in the game when change is hard

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Both organizational change and personal change are hard. Unlearning old habits and relearning new ones requires resiliance and persistance.

Last month I shared my insights into organizational and personal change, how challenging and sometimes difficult it can be to implement sustained change.

Even when we know the change is the right thing to do, even when we can identify the benefits to be gained we still procastinate, prevaricate and come up with many reasons (read excuses) to help avoid the change. We become creative geniuses at inventing and identifying why the change will never work and fall back on a set of beliefs that triggers denial, resistance and self-delusion.

Executive coach Marshall Goldsmith writes about this “self talk” in his book Triggers: Creating Behavior That Lasts--Becoming the Person You Want to Be (Crown Business, May 2015). Maybe you recognize some of the these phrases as your own:

  1. Today is special, it just won't count.

  2. "At least I'm better than..."

  3. I shouldn't need help and structure.

  4. I won't get tired or depleted; my enthusiasm won't fade.

  5. I have all the time in the world.

  6. I won't get distracted and nothing unexpected will occur.

  7. An epiphany will happen and suddenly change my life.

  8. My change will be permanent and I'll never have to worry again.

  9. My elimination of old problems will not bring on new problems.

  10. My efforts will be fairly rewarded.

  11. No one is paying attention to me.

  12. If I change I am "inauthentic."

  13. I have the wisdom to assess my own behavior.

Unfortunately this self-talk only serves to keep us stuck.

Faulty self-evaluation

While we believe other people consistently overrate themselves, we think our own self-assessment is fair and accurate, even in the face of evidence that shows we're entrapped by overconfidence, stubbornness, wishful thinking, confusion, resentment and procrastination.

If that weren't enough, we underestimate two of the biggest obstacles to change:

  1. We don't take into account how much energy levels vary during the day or recognize that depletion of energy brings loss of self-control. It's easier to just say "no" early in the day than late at night.
  2. We forget to factor in the strong pull of external triggers in the environment that pop up unexpectedly to throw us off track. We don't prepare for these obstacles, and once we give in, we give up.

Studies show that humans easily distort information when it comes to making decisions and judgments. Biases in judgment or decision-making can result from motivation, such as when beliefs are distorted by wishful thinking.

This is why so many people work with my team and I as coaches, or facilitators working with a team or organization to navigate their own change. The advantage to leveraging an external resource when attempting to make behavioral change is we can point out your biases and faulty judgments that prevent change and may undermine your goals.

To make change last, you need follow up

The tools for making any behavioral change aren't complicated, but they do have to include a system for follow-up if you want change to last.

The simplest way to follow-up is to answer a list of daily questions with a friend or coach. This allows you to track progress and see what's working and what's not. Marshall Goldsmith has written previously about his system of Daily Questions.

The Daily Question system of follow-up asks that you check in daily with a partner or coach and report your list of habit changes. For example:

  1. Did I do "x" number of sit ups today?

  2. Did I eat healthy?

  3. Was I a good listener?

  4. Was I nice to my spouse?

  5. Did I spend time reading?

Now, in his book Triggers: Creating Behavior That Lasts--Becoming the Person You Want to Be, Goldsmith suggests that instead of tracking whether you've taken an action or not, ask yourself if you did your best to make it happen.

This tracks your efforts, not your results. The former is a pass / fail, and none of us like to fail. The latter provides a focus on accountability and effort and reduces the self-talk and excuses for non performance. Add in the accountability partner and now you have an extra level of accountability - do you really want to tell your partner that once again you flaked out on your own commitment?

"Did I do my best today to...?"

If you want to make lasting changes, you'll need a system of follow-up with another person like this:

  1. Make a spreadsheet listing your desired behavioral changes. At the end of each day, answer: "Did I do my best today to...?" (exercise, eat healthy, listen to others, etc.)
  2. Use a 5-point scale from no (1), somewhat (2), average (3), good (4), to excellent (5). Alternatively, you can color code each answer using red, yellow and green marks.

The key here is to record your progress and effort rather than results. This helps:

  • You avoid getting discouraged when outcomes are slow to materialize.

  • It puts the appreciation where it belongs: on your efforts to take action.

  • It puts the focus on the milestones to success, each step, each yes can be celebrated. It gives you a progress record so you can see where your efforts are being made and where you need to try harder.

Success comes from getting back on the horse after a fall and taking more steps forward than back. Most people underestimate the time and effort required to make changes last. They don't include a follow-up system.

After a while, many people revert to old habits and previous ineffective actions. Follow-up with another person has been shown to be essential if you want to make lasting changes. Nothing is permanent. And some changes are worth persevering.

What's been your experience? I'd love to hear from you, you can contact me here and on LinkedIn (make sure to include a message to say where you read this article).

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