Why Change is so Hard: The Chemistry of Habits

Success in life could be so simple:
Want a better body? Run.
Want more money? Work harder or smarter.
Want better relationships? Spend more quality time with the people you love.

For almost any goal that we have, we know exactly what to do. In most cases, success isn’t rocket science. Millions of people have lost weight before, millions of people have created successful businesses, and thousands of them have written books detailing exactly what they did. Within a minute, you can google more training schedules and diet plans than you could ever use in a lifetime.

If more knowledge was the answer, we’d all be millionaires with six-packs.

There is always more than enough information, but what separates the millionaire from the beggar, the marathoner from the couch potato, and the happy person from the depressed one is this: Doing the work.

Only when you get started, put in the work, push through obstacles, and overcome challenges can you achieve anything in life. But unfortunately, most people live in this terrible wasteland called “Someday”.

“Someday”, they will start working out.
“Someday”, they will follow their dreams and start the business they’ve been talking about for years.
“Someday”, they will get started and do what they should have done all along the way.
And more often than not, “Someday” becomes NEVER.

If you think about it, “Someday” is nothing more than an excuse for not taking action today. We don’t believe that it will actually happen, but by putting it off until the far future when we are “better prepared” or “circumstances are easier”, we at least don’t have to face the disappointment of looking ourselves in the eyes and realizing that we are wasting our lives.

“Someday” becomes an escape mechanism, and it will steal the rest of your life if you are not careful, leaving you broke, out of shape, and depressed with your life.

So how, then, do we leave “Someday-land” and finally begin to take action? Chemistry may have an answer to that.

In chemistry, there is a concept called activation energy, which is the minimum energy that must be available in order for a chemical reaction to occur. Only after that threshold is met can a reaction occur. The more difficult and complex the reaction, the more activation energy is needed in order to get it started.

What that has to do with your life? Everything!
Activation energy works just the same when it comes to taking action towards your goals. For any behavior or habit you want to change, whether that is going for a 6-mile run or calling a new client, you need activation energy to get started. The more difficult or unpleasant the behavior, the more motivation and willpower (aka activation energy) you have to spend in order to just get started.

Doing is not the problem, it is starting that scares us.

Have you ever noticed that simply starting what you are afraid or unmotivated to do actually feels good? You managed to finally reach the activation energy to go for a run on a cold and rainy morning when your muscles were sore but it turned out to be one of the best things you did that day? Or maybe you could finally motivate yourself to study for that hard exam and ended up surprised because it really wasn’t that hard to study for several hours?

In almost all cases, it´s not doing the actual work that’s the problem, it´s starting it. Once the activation energy is provided and you start doing something, the reaction energy keeps itself alive, with almost no effort on your side. All you need to do is start. Here’s how you do that:

BJ Fogg, a Stanford researcher specialized in behavior change, has found that there are only three things that will change your behavior long term:

1: Have an epiphany
Unless you have some kind of mystical powers or wait all life long for some special day to arrive, this is not very helpful. Luckily, there are two other options available:

2. Start ridiculously small
This is what Fogg refers to as “tiny habits”. The idea behind it is to make the behavior so ridiculously easy that it is almost impossible not to do it.

When most people begin a new exercise routine, how do they start? All in, with nothing held back, for several hours a day. They treat behavior change like a sprint, when actually it is a marathon. No wonder that most people fail to lose weight or get started with a workout routine. They burn themselves out way before they could even see any results! You won’t get your dream body in a week, so you might as well play it for the long run.

When you are running for the first time, just go for a few minutes. Go slow and easy, so that you don’t feel any pain, and return way before you are completely exhausted. The next day, do the same.

This may seem counterintuitive as we are conditioned to think that harder is always better and “no pain, no gain”, but the truth is, these things are not very useful in creating sustainable behavior. One of the biggest motivating forces in human psychology is the need to avoid pain, so it doesn’t make any sense to go all out and make yourself hurt.

Instead of killing yourself in the gym and quitting after a week, make working out a habit. Start with just a few minutes a day and keep it easy for the first few weeks, if not months. Only when you feel like running has become a normal part of your routine and “you are a runner” can you increase your daily effort and run faster and longer. Your mind won’t stop you anymore.

3. Change your environment
Everyone wants the tools and strategies to make success happen faster and easier. Chemists are no different here, so they developed another trick to decrease the activation energy needed for a reaction to occur: By adding additional substances known as catalysts, chemists decrease the activation energy needed to get started and therefore make it easier for the reaction to start.

 When it comes to changing our behaviors, our catalyst is the environment. We can change the environment around us in such a way that taking action requires less motivation and willpower (activation energy).

Let's say that when you go to bed tonight, you plan on working out first thing tomorrow morning. You are eager and motivated, and can’t wait to get started. Fast-forward 8 hours of sleep, and that motivation isn’t quite there anymore. Let´s imagine (hypothetically) that you have 5 units of willpower when you wake up.

You are still tired, it’s cold outside, and your mind starts thinking about all the things you need to do: Get up and from your cozy bed into the cold room (1 unit), find your running clothes (1 unit), decide how long and fast you will run (1 unit), and then go run 7 miles in the cold (3 units). As all the math geniuses probably noticed, that makes 6 units of willpower. But since we only have 5 units available this morning, we likely won’t go and instead just stay in bed and sleep in.

That's where catalysts come into play. You can decrease the activation energy needed to go run by simply changing your environment. For example, you can set the room temperature high enough that you won’t be freezing in the morning when you get out of bed (I´ve found this to be huge, especially in the winter), prepare your running clothes the night before, and decide in advance how many miles you will run. According to our hypothetical calculation from above, this would save 3 units of willpower, leaving 5 units for the actual run.

Instead of depleting our willpower before you even start your run, you can shape your environment in such a way that it promotes the exact activities you want to do (you can read more about this here).

Want to eat healthier? Only keep healthy foods in your house and throw out the cookies to prevent any temptations.
Want to wake up earlier? Make sure to turn up the heat in the room, play your favorite song, or watch some motivational videos as soon as the alarm clock sounds.

Want to read a book as part of your morning routine? Open it up on the page you want to read and place it somewhere you will see it.
Fail to work out consistently? Start by signing up for the gym and finding a workout partner that will hold you accountable. It is easy to find excuses when you are on your own, but much harder to ditch your training partner when you have committed to working out with him.

Whatever you want to do, make sure to first create the environmental conditions necessary to make the right choices easier.

Now, I want you to look at your own life. What is your “Someday, I’ll…”? What do you keep talking about without ever taking action?

Think about that thing, and then realize that it will never happen unless you make it happen. “Someday” is just an excuse and will always be there, so you need to get started now. Change your environment to help you support your new behaviors. Start ridiculously small: Go run for five minutes. Or walk if you have to. But do it right now!

Read next:

Unlimited Willpower

 

The Science of Willpower + 10 proven ways to strengthen it

  Unlimited Willpower

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