Why behavioural change is so hard

How many times have you made a New Year’s resolution, only to find a week later you’ve slipped back into your old habits?

In fact, an astounding 80 per cent of New Year’s resolutions fail within the first week. Why? Because behavioural change is hard. Really hard.

There are two key reasons why. Firstly, change is hard. Secondly, people only change when they can see it is in their best interest to do so.

How many times have you been to a workshop or read an article (like this one) and thought ‘I don’t need this, why bother listening’? How often have you been told to join the gym but not felt like it’s important enough to you? Perhaps you’ve tried to drink less, or stop smoking, or to be nicer to people, without any clear reason or motivation for doing so?

While it might sound like the bleating obvious, successful change requires you to be ready to change. According to the research, people only change when it is in their best interests to do so. Simply telling someone to change is often more of a reason to stay the same.

For people to truly make a change, they need to see that the benefits of engaging in new behaviour far outweighing maintaining old behaviour - in other words, to make a change, you need to believe it is worth it. Otherwise, why bother?

There is a process behind change, and I’m not talking about walking on fire or bending an arrow against your throat. I’m also not talking about magic potions, or alliterations of the letter P - you know the drill, the speaker with the big voice belting out statements like “to make lasting change you need to tap into your inner Power, Passion, and Purpose”.  

Psychologist James Prochaska on the 6 key stages of change

Pre-contemplation – You don’t know what you need to know and you’re not even considering making a change.


Contemplation – You have the intention to change but are stuck weighing up the pros and cons, like a see-saw swaying form one side to the other. The key to shifting is to stack the see-saw towards the pros.

Preparation – You have usually decided to change, but haven’t begun the change process. In this stage you often have a plan of action but haven’t taken the first step to make it happen.

Action - Once in the action stage you make specific modifications to your lifestyle, and their new behaviour can be seen through observable change. A rough timeline for this stage is from a few weeks to 2 to 3 months.

Maintenance - This is where you need to work hard to maintain the new change and actions. In this stage you are often working hard to prevent relapse, and this generally occurs 3 to 6 months after starting the change program.

Relapse - A natural part of any change process, this is where the new behaviour is lost and you revert back to your old, often more comfortable way of being. Relapse is most common in the action or maintenance phase as you are still working hard to get used to your new type of behaviour.

Bin the outdated notion that it takes 21 days to make or break a habit – some people can be stuck in some of the stages above for 21 years. A realistic, lasting change program will take most people between 3 to 6 months until they can say the changes have been embedded.

‘I’ve tried and failed before’

One of the main barriers that stops us from making change is the fact we’ve tried something in the past and it hasn’t worked. The first step here is to replace the word failure with relapse. Relapse is a perfectly normal part of any behaviour change program.

The stages of change model (or the Transtheoretical Model, for the technos) provides a context for why past changes have been unsuccessful. Often people attribute unsuccessful change as a failure of themselves, and this deters them from making change in the future or trying to make the same change again.

However, the more realistic way of looking at this is - perhaps they weren’t ready. Think about a time in the past when you’ve been unsuccessful at making a change and try to identify what stage you were at.

How do I move forward?

When contemplating change, it’s normal to reach a point where you feel stuck. Change is a rough, tough and complicated process that usually involves surfing through the stages of change in a non-linear process. One day you might be ready to change, the next you’re back exploring or weighing up the pros and cons.

It’s also important to remember that change is not linear. Recognise where you are at, what’s happening for you, and learn from each experience.

5 tips for making lasting change

1. Only change when you’re ready to. Work out where you are in the change process and craft your change strategy based on the stage of change you see yourself in.

2. Weighing up the pros and cons is normal. Ask yourself questions about what the benefits of change will look like and stack the see-saw towards the pros.

3. Be realistic. Set yourself goals that stretch, but don’t strain. While relapse is part of the process, avoid setting yourself up for failure.

4. Relapse is not failure. If you do relapse into your old behaviour, this isn’t a failure. Review what happened and redefine what you’re trying to achieve.

5. Get support - change is hard enough at the best of times, so when you’re ready to change, make a commitment to others and communicate your intentions in an effort to rally support and celebrate your success.

Main source: Danielle  Buckley, Go Beyond Psychology; Prochaska and DiClemente Stages of Change Model.

What bad habit would you most like to change?

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