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9 reasons why it’s so hard to change

Change is hard, but once you understand why we resist it, then it’s no problem. This article explains why change is so hard and how to make it easier.

Ed Latimore
Ed Latimore
Writer, retired boxer, self-improvement enthusiast

This is a guest post from Thomas Waschenfelder over at The Wealest, a blog about using probability to make decisions and overcoming cognitive biases to make money.

To win in life, you must adapt to change. Change isn’t the exception in life. It’s the rule.

Those who can learn fast, pivot quickly, and position themselves to gain from rapidly changing circumstances eventually win

It’s not enough to be “okay” with change. You need to embrace it.

Most People Don’t Want To Change

Life is change. It’s a constant flow of beginnings and endings.

Meditation makes this very clear. Everything that has ever happened to you - every experience in your life - has begun and ended. And now you are here reading these words.

Despite this, humans don’t like change. Most of us desperately resist it and will fight to maintain the status quo of our lives.

Just try and think of the last bad habit you were able to quit. I’ll wait…

It’s hard, right?

For years, I had this terrible habit of talking over other people. It wasn’t because I wasn’t interested in what they had to say. I was actually trying to finish their thought to show how in-sync I was with the person talking.

It took me YEARS to break out of this bad habit. And it didn’t happen all at once. I just got consistently better at listening without waiting to speak. Eventually, the bad habit disappeared. But it took a lot of intentional practice.

As Warren Buffett likes to say:

*“The chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken.” (based on the original quote from Samuel Johnson). *

Change Is Hard Because Of Shortcuts In Your Brain

The reason why change is so hard is that you’re up against mental biases (shortcuts in your brain) that reinforce consistency.

The brain doesn’t have unlimited capacity to process all the information it takes in on any given day. So, it uses shortcuts to make quick decisions and save energy.

These shortcut biases are generally helpful, but sometimes they trip you up when it comes to decision-making.

Here are some examples of mental biases that make change difficult:

Confirmation bias

This is the tendency to seek out and interpret evidence as confirmation of your current belief or position.

Horoscopes exist because of confirmation bias. People read them with a pre-existing belief, and then find confirmation of their direction / purpose / action / decision in the context of the horoscope.

Confirmation bias exists in investing, too. If you love a company from the outset - say Apple - and start researching the business, you’ll look for evidence that supports your view that Apple is a great company. At the same time, you’ll ignore evidence that contradicts that position.

Social media is an echo chamber of confirmation bias. How many people on Twitter do you follow who you actively disagree with? Probably not many. So much of what you see on social media confirms your pre-existing beliefs. The algorithm is built for engagement, so it will actively feed you things it thinks you’ll like - which is usually just more stuff you agree with.

That’s why I make a point to follow people with whom I very rarely agree just so I can expose myself to dissenting points of view. It’s not always comfortable, but it helps combat confirmation bias.

To fight confirmation bias more generally, actively give more weight to disconfirming evidence. Always explore the other side of your belief and consider all the ways you could be wrong.

Commitment and Consistency bias

This is the tendency to continue to act according to the previous commitments you’ve made.

Most people feel guilty when they break a promise, or when they don’t do what they said they would do. Socially, this is seen as overwhelmingly negative.

Robert B. Cialdini in his textbook, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, explains:

“Inconsistency is commonly thought to be an undesirable personality trait. The person whose beliefs, words, and deeds don’t match may be seen as indecisive, confused, two-faced, or even mentally ill. On the other side, a high degree of consistency is normally associated with personal and intellectual strength. It is at the heart of logic, rationality, stability, and honesty.”

Subscription-based businesses bank on commitment and then consistency from their customers. They often use a “foot in the door” technique to have you make a small commitment (like a free month trial of their product) with the understanding that you’ll probably just pay for the product after the trial is over. They know it’s easier for you to keep their service than cancel it.

Here’s a personal example of a commitment tactic someone used on me. I once attended a free 3-day investing workshop where the host had us fill out a “promise” card. I still have mine in my wallet actually (see, this bias really is powerful). The host had us fill out this laminated promise card on the last day of the workshop, where we “commit” wholeheartedly to obtaining the financial security we all craved. I filled out the card eagerly.

A few days later, my phone rang. It was a call from one of the workshop’s representatives. They wanted to know if I was going to follow through on my promise to myself and commit thousands of dollars to pay for their options trading course.

The workshop host knew the power of commitment and consistency bias and used it on his potential customers. (I didn’t buy the course :).

To counteract commitment and consistency bias, try not to start bad habits in the first place. As Benjamin Franklin said: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

The other thing you can do is just be very careful what you commit to. Cialdini warns us that even a small commitment made in haste can make you more likely to go along with larger commitments later on that are barely related. And once you commit publicly to something, it becomes all the more difficult to change paths.

Loss aversion bias

This is the tendency to suffer more from a loss than you enjoy from a proportionate gain.

Loss aversion limits your ability to take risks because the pain of a loss is so much more powerful than the joy of winning.

This leads to status quo bias - your preference for the path you’re already on. Any new path means losing your current path, so people stay where they are.

That’s why making big life changes is so hard. Before I quit my job, it was the fear of losing my monthly income that kept me doing something I had lost my passion for. I had a severe aversion to loss.

But once I did quit, I discovered the sheer number of other options available, with new options opening up every month.

Status quo bias

Status quo bias is also why, once you choose a path, you tend to stay on it for a relatively long time. The average length of a job in the U.S. is about four years. That’s a big chunk of your working life - around 10%.

To counteract status quo bias, psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman recommend that you weigh other options slightly more heavily than the current path you’re on.

If all other things are equal, take the new direction.

Social proof

This is the tendency to think and act like the people around you.

You’ve probably heard the phrase credited to motivational speaker Jim Rohn: “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”

And it’s mostly true. Humans are social creatures, and we take cues from other people as to how to behave and navigate our lives.

If you were to enter an elevator full of people facing the other direction, chances are you’d turn around and face the same direction as everyone else. It is very difficult to stand out from the crowd.

Again, this makes change difficult. If everyone in your social circle is buying homes and having kids, and you’re on the same path, you’ll likely continue on that path because it’s what you see all around you.

My life changed when I “changed” my circle. I exposed myself to the ideas of wealth creators (starting a blog about it in the process) and learned there was an entirely different path to the one I was on. A path with more uncertainty, but far more upside.

Now, the people I surround myself with (both physically and virtually) are pushing me in the direction I’ve chosen, not the one I was on by default.

To avoid becoming a victim of social proof, vary the people you spend time with (or follow on social). If you look at your circle and they all look and sound exactly like you, it’s time to re-evaluate.

Inertia Is Another Force That Makes Change Hard

Your brain isn’t the only thing working against you when you want to change directions. The physical world is too.

Newton’sfirst law of inertia states that “if a body is at rest or moving at a constant speed in a straight line, it will remain at rest or keep moving in a straight line at constant speed unless it is acted upon by a force.”

Or, as Ed puts it:

“The law of inertia applies to all things. It’s easier to stay in motion and it’s easier to stay at rest. Change is a real MF’er.”

The longer you’ve been moving in one direction, the more likely it is that you’ll keep moving in that direction.

An employee at a company who has been there for 10 years is far more likely to still be there 10 years later than someone who has only been there for a year.

That’s why it’s important to pivot quickly away from things you don’t like doing. If you hate your job, quit as soon as possible. If you want to try another career path, do it now.

The good news is that now you know about inertia, you can use it to help you. In any endeavor, be it a side hustle, project, learning a new skill - whatever - the hardest part is getting started. It’s changing your direction and forming a new habit that takes all the work. Once you’re on the new path, inertia (and all the mental biases above) will help you stay on in.

That’s why the goal for me was always to achieve some form of self-employment. Because I knew that if I could pivot and survive outside a full-time 9-5 job, inertia would help me stay there. And it has.

Change Is Going To Happen Whether You Embrace It Or Not

Despite the human nature to resist change, the irony is that change is going to happen whether you want it to or not. And it’s better to embrace it than be left behind.

As Charlie Munger says:

“Those who will not face improvements because they are changes, will face changes that are not improvements.”

Take the internet as an example. If you were running a small business and were desperately resisting the changes brought upon by the internet, I would assume you’re out of business today.

The benefits of the internet are so obvious that to deny them is to face “changes that are not improvements.” Simply put - you’ll get your ass kicked competitively if you choose not to use the greatest tool ever invented.

A similar transformation is happening right now in finance with the emergence of DeFi (Decentralized Finance). If I worked in finance (I don’t), I’d be very eager to try and understand what DeFi is and what its benefits are to make sure that when this transformation is over, one way or another, I still have marketable skills I can sell.

One way to get ahead of the curve is to keep tabs on the people in your field who are on the very edge of innovation.

Follow them on social media to see what they’re thinking and talking about. Then, figure out if the future they predict is 1) likely, and 2) full of upside you can potentially exploit.

If you had followed the right people in the tech space after the invention of Bitcoin in 2009 and worked to understand the upside of a digital currency, you could have done very, very well.

To Make Change Easier, Constantly Invest In Yourself

Change is hard, but it’s possible. Those who are great at embracing change are constantly learning and updating their view of the world. They are learning machines.

Most people reach a certain age and plateau. They “settle.” And there is nothing wrong with that if that is what you want out of life.

But, if you want to build something great - a product, a career, a blog, even a relationship - you must constantly invest in yourself. You must push yourself outside your comfort zone little by little, every day

Ed talks about this in his article,1 year to change your life in 10 simple steps, writing:

“Small changes, consistently made over time, make the biggest difference in your life. There is almost nothing that you can’t be, do, or have if you’re willing to be patient and to do the little things, every day, that will eventually compound.”

This is harder than it sounds. Very few people are willing to get uncomfortable every day. It takes effort and intention. And you have to know exactly why you’re doing it.

If you exercise regularly, you know how difficult it is to push harder than you did the day before. Your muscles are aching. Your brain is screaming stop. It takes everything you have to push just one percent further.

But if you attack each workout with this mindset, after 6-months of effort you won’t recognize yourself. You’ll have completely changed your physicality by compounding your efforts each week.

The same goes for whatever you choose to create. I built Wealest (my blog) one post at a time. I started with zero readers. Zero subscribers. Zero page views. Zero Google search impressions. And I had no idea how to build a blog.

But I read and researched a little each day. And over time, my writing improved. My readership grew. My newsletter list got longer. My search rankings went up. The small improvements I made each week compounded into an asset that drives 10K+ pageviews / month with little effort from me.

It all starts with pushing and learning each day. You don’t have to go very far, but you have to make at least some progress.

If you’re having trouble starting, figure out the smallest possible step you can take (google is your friend) and take it. I started Wealest by writing a single post. I started meditating with a single 10-minute session. Consistency beats intensity. Just start small and don’t stop.

To Make Change Easier, Lean Into Confusion.

The other thing you can do to make your brain more malleable to change is to try and embrace confusion.

No matter what you’re learning or building, you’ll eventually hit a wall where things aren’t making sense anymore. And that’s great! Because confusion is a feature of self-improvement, not a bug.

Confusion is a signal that you’re growing. It’s uncomfortable and frustrating, but it’s the clearest sign that you are changing your life.

Having recently left my full-time job, I deal with confusion all the time. There’s no one telling me what to work on, how to manage my priorities, how to spend my time, etc. I must decide it all for myself, and it’s not always clear what decision I should make. This is all part of learning how to build something of my own.

Confusion is the barrier to entry for autonomy. So lean into it. It just means you’re pushing yourself into new territory.

If you’re confused, go back to first principles. See if you can figure out exactly where you lost the thread. Eventually, if you keep digging and working, things will soon make more sense. Just don’t stop.

Understand What’s Worth Changing For

You only have a finite amount of time, so you can’t change everything at once.

You can’t try to build an e-commerce business, run across the country, open up a mobile coffee shop, and become a world-class writer in the same month. You must be very selective in choosing what to work on, especially if you’re putting your time and money on the line.

With each opportunity, you want to maximize your chances for success. Warren Buffett has a model that can help you figure out what to work on. In his words, you only “swing at the fat pitch” - the big opportunity that’s entirely in your circle of competence.

A circle of competence is an area that you have useful knowledge in. You understand how the area functions in reality.

For example, say you want to start exercising and lose weight but don’t know where to start. Ask yourself if there are any sports you really like. Maybe you watch a lot of baseball and understand the game’s intricacies, but have never played it.

Baseball would be a great sport to start playing to get active. You already know and like the sport - now you just have to engage physically with it using all the knowledge you already give.

Another solution would be to hire someone who has a circle of competence in fitness, like a personal trainer. That way, you don’t have to know anything about it. The trainer brings their expertise to help maximize your chance of success.

Remember, consistency beats intensity. You want to give yourself the best chance of following through on the opportunity by having it be something you already understand and like - something in your circle of competence (or by hiring someone else who has that particular circle of competence).

The same goes for business opportunities. If you love reading and writing, and you’re good at it, don’t suddenly try and start a graphic design business. You are going to get walloped competitively by those who love graphic design. Instead, you could start a copywriting business where you can use the skills you already have.

Finally - and this is very important - no matter what opportunity you pursue, make sure that you survive to play again if you fail. A good bet never puts you into a position where you get totally wiped out if things go wrong.

You never want to risk going to “zero.” This includes your health (serious injury or death), your finances (bankruptcy), and your freedom (going to jail).

Don’t try and get in shape by doing the IronMan Triathlon. Don’t risk every dollar you have on an impromptu business idea. And don’t break the law to make a quick buck. Always survive to play again.

It’s Better To Try To Change And Fail Than Never Try At All

Throughout your life, what you’ll learn is that the kinds of mistakes you regret the most are ones of omission, not commission.

In other words, it’s the stuff you never tried that will keep you up at night, not the things you tried to do that failed.

Charlie Munger - Warren Buffett’s business partner at Berkshire Hathaway - talked about this during a Q&A at the 2001 annual meeting:

“The mistakes that have been most extreme in Berkshire’s history are mistakes of omission. They don’t show up in our figures. They show up in opportunity costs. In other words, we have opportunities, we almost do it. In retrospect, we can tell that we were very much mistaken not to do it…”

But practically everywhere in life, and in corporate life, too, what really costs, in comparison with what easily might have been, are the blown opportunities.”

At the end of your life, it’s the stuff you never tried that will haunt you the most.

You’ll also find regret in knowing what to do, but not going far enough in doing it. For Warren Buffett, stepping a toe in the water when you know you should dive in is almost more painful than doing nothing.

Rare opportunities with massive upside deserve your full attention. Make sure they get it.

Jeff Bezos went through this very process when he was considering starting Amazon. After he had a conversation with his boss, who encouraged him to stick with his good job, Bezos says it was the fear of regret that pushed him over the edge:

“In most cases our biggest regrets turn out to be acts of omission. It’s paths not taken and they haunt us. We wonder what would have happened. I knew that when I’m 80, I would never regret trying this thing [Amazon] that I was super excited about and it failing.”

Trying and then failing is not the problem. It’s not trying at all that leaves you burned.

If you want to build anything great, you must adapt to change. Start small and use your hardwired instincts for consistency to help you stay on the path you actively choose.

Too many people wander through life on the same path they started on. Life should be an adventure - full of serendipity, randomness, and change.

And remember, if you don’t want to change, it’s going to happen anyway. It’s better to be riding the wave than drowning under it.

Keep going.

Ed Latimore
About the author

Ed Latimore

I’m a writer, competitive chess player, Army veteran, physicist, and former professional heavyweight boxer. My work focuses on self-development, realizing your potential, and sobriety—speaking from personal experience, having overcome both poverty and addiction.

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