Moving Forward: Why is change so difficult?

To see a real impact, habits need to be altered

September 24, 2010 16:35
4 minute read.
Glacier melting.

311_glacier. (photo credit: Mike Dunn / MCT)

“Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle” – Martin Luther King

Clients often ask me how long it will take to solve their issue. This is a legitimate question, because a person coming for help with a specific problem is usually not interested in being in treatment for years. Though what I think they are really asking me is “why can’t you just tell me what to do during this first session, and I’ll do exactly what you say and therefore won’t need any further sessions?”

I answer these clients by telling them that achieving meaningful change is a process, and that process takes time. It is like any permanent change you want to make in life, whether you are going to a gym with a personal trainer or starting a new diet with a dietician. The professional may be able to give you some advice during the initial meeting, but to see a real impact, habits need to change and you have to work diligently over time for that to happen. It takes at least three months to see any real change, and for lasting impact, probably much longer than that.

So why can’t change be instantaneous? The answer lies in the two psychological processing systems that help us through everyday life: One can be called our automatic processing system and the other our conscious processing system.

The automatic system takes care of most everything we do by quickly processing familiar routines in a highly efficient manner. In essence it makes crucial links and associations with information we have already learned. As a result, it allows us to function effortlessly and almost mindlessly. As an example, just think of your daily morning routine: You don’t need to put much thought into how to tie your shoelaces, how to cook your egg for breakfast or even how to drive to work. You do these things, and many others, automatically or mindlessly.

Your conscious processing, on the other hand, requires a lot of effort while it focuses in depth on only one thing at a time. That effort is necessary because we need and use it to help us manage unfamiliar and challenging situations.

Our conscious thought can plan, reason and figure out sensible answers to help us deal with the unknown. But this conscious system takes up so much of our energy and focus that we can do only one thing at a time. So while it is flexible in adapting to change, it is not very efficient, as it needs and requires constant heightened attention.

An example of how these two processing capacities function can be understood by thinking of how we type on a keyboard. If you have learned to type, it is your autonomic system that is gliding your fingers through the keyboard.

If, for some reason, the sequence of letters was changed, you would have to switch to using your conscious processing to type. With your conscious processing taking over, you could again successfully type but only with extreme effort and concentration, and even then probably at a greatly reduced speed. It is only after long practice that you become adept at gliding over the keyboard and allowing your effortless efficient automatic system to take over.

Concrete research on these two systems was carried out at Princeton University. Students were asked the following math question: Eddie bought a bat and ball for $1.10. The bat cost a dollar more than the ball. How much did the ball cost? While most students were able to come up with the right answer of five cents, the majority first thought of the answer 10 cents and had to override it to get the right one.

Notably, when experimenters stopped people who were busy and distracted, such as those hurrying across campus, people were more likely to say the ball cost 10 cents.

This example highlights the challenge we face and the necessary effort to check and sometimes overcome our automatic responses.

Our behavioral habits and emotional reactions are also ingrained in our automatic processing systems. Examples of this are our responses to the stress of performance, to personal disappointments or to criticism and rejection. All are ingrained in our automatic system. As with changing physical habits, changing our emotional reactions and behavior takes a serious, time-consuming, conscious effort. Until you have mastered a new way of reacting you are likely to fall back to the old automatic system’s familiar response.

While this understanding of the nature of change is relevant for expectations in therapy, it is also an important lesson to keep in mind as a parent at home or a manager at work. Do not expect your children or your team members to “listen to you” and change their habits immediately. Hearing and even understanding a message is only the first step.

Real change will require you to be consistent and repeat the message over and over again. At the same time, make sure to hold children or workers accountable for the conscious effort necessary to change. With such a formula of patience, persistence and follow-up you are likely to see real long-term change.

Dr. Mann is a positive clinical psychologist who helps clients in his Jerusalem office and gives workshops on positive psychology to businesses and organizations.

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