Why Doesn’t Change Stick?

falling leaf

A lot of us try – and try hard – to make changes in our lives. We’re keen, we’re motivated, we may even have a step-by-step plan.

For a while, it works. Maybe we successfully start eating more healthily, or take up an exercise routine. Maybe we manage to leave work at 5pm every day. Maybe we take a big step – like starting a family or quitting a job – and hope that this solves problems, like our struggles with time-management or our tendency to procrastinate.

Being inspired to change is great. But it’s hard to ignore the reality that lots of us want to change – and lots of us do start making changes – only to end up backsliding.

So why does this happen?

I don’t think there are any easy answers here, but here are a few possibilities.

We Made the Wrong Change

When you’re trying to change a particular aspect of your life, it’s worth thinking through why.

Maybe you want to be thinner. Is that because you’re motivated by health concerns? Or because you feel that you “should” lose weight to fit society’s ideal?

Maybe you’re keen to quit your job and go back to college. Are you motivated by finally following your dreams? Or do you think that you “should” have a degree?

It’s very easy to end up pushed towards a change because friends, parents or society are putting pressure on us (not necessarily deliberately). The problem is, any initial motivation for this sort of change fades quickly.

Next time you’re thinking of making a big change, give yourself some time to mull it over. What do you really want? Perhaps you don’t actually want to be thinner – you just want to be confident and happy in your own body. (And therapy – or just a new wardrobe – could be your way forwards.) Perhaps you really enjoy your job, and you don’t want to claw your way up the career ladder.

We Gave Up Too Soon

Even if you go for a change which you really want, it’s still very easy to lose your way. I find that when I’m keen and motivated, the path ahead looks easy. I can see my destination shining in the sun, and it looks like a pleasant stroll to get there.

It’s only once I’m travelling that path that I realise there are stones to stumble over, thorns which clutch at my legs. The destination looks further and further away. The path which seemed so straight twists and turns, and I find myself looking back at the way I came … and it looks so much easier there.

Does that happen to you too? It’s probably a good thing that we underestimate how hard change will be: otherwise, we’d never get started! However, it’s important to recognise that the fact that we’re struggling doesn’t mean we’re on the wrong path.

Next time you’re tempted to give up on a particular change in your life, look for a different route forwards. Have you made it harder than it needs to be? Can someone else lend you a helping hand? Can you take a breather to recover your motivation – and then carry on?

We Got Dragged Down

Sometimes, the problem isn’t that motivation is lacking. We’re going along well – but something happens which derails us. It might even seem like all our hard work is undone.

These factors might not be in your control. You get sick and you can’t stick to an exercise routine. There’s a downturn in the market, and your business suffers. A family crisis means you have to set aside your big project.

In those cases, there’s no way you can prevent them happening (though you might be able to take preventative action to lessen the impact). You have to roll with them – and, rather than giving up, accept a delay in the change which you’re trying to implement in your life.

Other times, you’ve got a bit more control (even though it doesn’t always feel like it). You go on vacation and pig out, putting on the 4lbs you’d lost. You let your friends’ negative attitude sap your confidence. You go shopping to make yourself feel better, and put it all on your credit card.

How can you avoid getting dragged down? I’d suggest:

  • Keep your attention on your goal – the change you’re trying to make. Write it out somewhere you can see it every day, or find some other visual reminder to keep close at hand.
  • Take responsibility for the things you can control. I’m great at making excuses myself, but I know that it’s my choice to eat unhealthily, to skip exercise sessions or to over-commit myself.
  • Find sources of support. Friends, family, colleagues or like-minded groups can all make the difference when it comes to going the distance. Being able to accept help is a sign of strength and maturity.

Whatever change you’re currently trying to make in your life, be proud of yourself for giving it a go. Don’t beat yourself up when you find the path gets hard – but find the motivation and support which you need to carry on.

However big and overwhelming your goal might seem – or however small and unimportant – you can go the distance.

Photo by Jesse Kruger

24 thoughts on “Why Doesn’t Change Stick?”

  1. Hey Ali,

    This post makes me realize how much we think alike about change. I see the problem with giving up too soon the most. We need to reach a certain threshold with our practice for something to become automatic. And very often, we give up before we reach it. We sort of drown when we are almost at the shore. That’s a great way to waste your time! :)

  2. I really enjoyed this post, looking at why change doesn’t stick.

    It did strike me, though, that we are CONSTANTLY changing all the time. In fact, the real truth of the matter is that non-change doesn’t stick.

    Which of course doesn’t invalidate any of your excellent points above, but does get me wondering about the nature of change – wanted, versus unwanted change!


  3. Great post, Ali! I agree that the hardest part about change isn’t necessarily the beginning, it’s the middle when our enthuiasm lags and it just becomes work. I think that the secret there is just to stay focused on what we want and why it’s important to us and then just begin again…and again…and again….however many times it takes!


  4. The support system of a mother who is about to give birth is her husband. The support system of an entrepreneur is his guiding light mentor or his friends. The support system of people who blog could be the bloggers he or she talks to or the people who comment on his post if any.

    The point I’m trying to make is all of us need a support system. No matter who we are or what we do. We need people who will encourage us in a positive way.

    They say most authors live life alone. But I cannot agree with this, because if most did , they would go insane. For I am an author who still hasn’t fallen into the G building of life’s cadaverous.

    The camaraderie between friends and positive people is necessary for any-type of success; Big or Small. So for starters, if you want to be successful in anything. Weight loss because you packed on the pasta or even joining the police academy because you love to serve and protect ( like I almost did) You need to have a group of people to egg you on, Not burn you out.

    This is the lesson i realized and i hope you all realize from reading Ali’s post. You Go Girl!

    1. Thanks Jonathan. (And I’m not convinced that most authors live alone — it seems an odd statistic. I agree with you that writers need folks around!)

  5. I just had a good conversation with my colleague on these topics. This excellent post confirms the idea of our weekly ‘peer coaching’ session. It helps me a lot in focussing and sharing our thoughts.
    Thanks Ali!

  6. Hi Ali,

    I’d like to add another possibility to your list. When change doesn’t stick, we might need to look more deeply into the existing habit. If we are engaging in a habit, even if it isn’t healthy or what we want for ourselves, we are getting something out of it. If this benefit isn’t uncovered, the old behavior can persist, and efforts to change it will be derailed.

    For example, someone who overeats may be hiding from painful feelings. Unless those feelings are recognized and met, the overeating is likely to continue because it serves a function.

    There is no substitute for becoming aware of all aspects of our habits. Only then can we be free of them.

  7. I think we sometimes go all out for a goal biting off more than we can chew. Then we can keep our “energy” up to that level and eventually it drops and we give up. Think about penguins. They take baby steps and it carries them a long way.

  8. I needed this post today. I’ve started on a “new career” chapter in my life. I’ve honed in on what I truly want have started to consistently work at it to make it happen. However, sometimes it’s hard to stay focused on the end result when little is happening right now. Thank you for this post. It reminded me why I’m making these changes and why they’re important to me!

    author & lifestyle designer

  9. You also can’t be afraid to change the goal, too. Sometimes you face that old adage – you don’t always want what you wish for. Be willing to constantly evaluate and change your goals as you yourself become aware of new possibilities.

    As always, great read, Ali!

  10. I think ensuring that the goals you are aiming for arre what you really want is paramount. Sometimes we think we want it, but when we really stop and think, we don’t! It may be harder to admit that, than carry on feeling demotivated.

    When planning goals, I try to account for obstacles and challenges (and always allow extra time for the thing that comes and bites you in the ass – ineveitably something goes wrong!) If we anticipate this we are able to carry on rather than give up. Although it is a fine line between this and thinking it will be too hard and not starting in the first place!

  11. “Why doesn’t change stick?”

    The short answer is that humans are highly adaptive, which is the same reason why happiness doesn’t stick.

    The remedy is to anticipate adaptation, which is most closely aligned with your solution to “Keep your attention on your goal.” You have to adapt to the change and time is required to adapt. In short, this is called forming new habits.

    Great post, by the way…

    1. Thanks Kent! And good point about our adaptive nature. I always find it interesting (and a bit sad) that things which make me happy seem to become “everyday” so quickly…

  12. Change often fails because it is not congruent with our values. We can shift our habits, but they will bend back because we will run out of willpower from not being ourselves.

    So we should know our selves first.

    When we use a maps.. we need to know where are we now… before we can decided where we want to go.

  13. This post makes a lot of sense. And it’s something so simple to look at. I’m going to take up from this concept and write on this soon. Thank you. The universality of this feeling about change is very strong.

  14. Ali I’m really enjoying your posts. They’re very easy to read and the advice is easy to implement. I know from experience that the small changes we make on a daily basis add up to huge results in the future. The problem is that the small easy stuff is easy to do but it’s also easy not to do because we think it doesn’t make a difference one way or the other.

    But it does and the proof is in the doing.

    Thanks again for this great post.

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