Getting ready for change

Michelle Church updated 2019

by Michelle Church, Improvement Advisor

‘Change matters. It forces us to act.’ – Will Storr

I started out writing this blog post like a report, out of habit. I want to develop a new writing style that is more appropriate for blogging, and it’s proving harder than I thought. This got me thinking, ‘Why is changing so challenging?’


A bit about habit…

I recently learnt that around half our waking day is habitual (see this study by Neal et al, which looks at experience-sampling diary studies), and that all of us have neurological loops that drive our behaviour. In Charles Duhigg’s, The Power of Habit, he explains that researchers at MIT discovered a simple neurological loop: cue, routine and reward.

They discovered that when designing new routines it is essential to identify the trigger for the action, otherwise old behaviours will continue. Also it turns out we don’t need to change the cue and reward for the change to stick. In fact, their research concluded not to: change only the routine. For new habits to form, we need to keep the same cue and reward.

Modes of thought

I have learned about how our brains are wired to be energy efficient. Daniel Kahneman, winner of the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics, argues that we have two modes of thought: fast and slow.

The first mode of thought is fast. This is our natural state – automatic, intuitive, effortless. In this mode we create habits (patterns such as our route to work) to make living efficient. In the work environment these habits become the routines and processes that drive nearly every aspect of our working lives.

The second mode of thought is slow. It is deliberate, reflective and analytical. We go into this mode when planning a trip overseas, or learning something new.

When we experience change, when we learn or change a routine, we think more slowly and it takes effort. This may seem obvious, but it has transformed my ability to support improvement work. I have a greater understanding that the resistance to change is because we don’t like disrupting our habits – it goes against our energy-saving neuro-programming and reward structures.

There’s some good news, though, as it seems that we are also neuro-programmed for change. In The Science of Storytelling, Will Storr observes that we are alerted to things that might threaten our sense of control, becoming curious to discover the whole story and regain a sense of control. Our ability to be curious is a great starting point for improvement. Despite the effort required, most of us love to explore and learn.

Stepping outside of your comfort zone

If I’m honest, I normally want to explore a good castle or hillside and quickly return to my creature comforts. My experience of change that involves deep learning or changing my habits, where I am not sure what the change will involve and it seems beyond my control… well, it can often feel like the pits. James Nottingham sums it up well in his visual journey of the learning challenge. He uses the image of a pit to illustrate the obstacles that people encounter in learning something new, and how it takes them out of their comfort zone.

Learning pit

Source: Challenging Learning

Combining John Fisher’s Personal Transition Curve with this image of the learning journey can help us to understand how individuals might respond to change, and consider what might move people into acceptance and take up new behaviours.

In addition to understanding the challenges associated with learning something new, it is also important to consider what motivates people. Daniel Pink (author of Drive, which explores human motivation) argues that intrinsic reward, doing something because we find it gratifying, is as just as important as biological and extrinsic rewards.

Discovering the personal and relational, intrinsic and extrinsic motivations is essential to understand the reward we all need.

Breaking habits

Change is challenging, as habit is such a dominant force in our lives. However, understanding the reasons why we find it difficult to change, tapping into people’s curiosity and desire to learn, and understanding their motivations can help us to break away from old habits, and create new ones.