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What Makes Change Difficult?

Approaches that make change hard and even impossible.

Alla Serebrina/Depositphotos
Source: Alla Serebrina/Depositphotos

Change is hard. We hear it often, we say it often, and we end up believing it. Nevertheless, change is something we also desire and strive for. Whether the change involves abandoning a bad habit, developing a new skill, or making a big life change, we have all experienced the desire to make a change in our lives.

While change requires effort, resilience, planning, and support, there are some approaches to change that make it more difficult.

1. Changing too many things at once

There are many disadvantages to trying to change too many variables at once. It could break your focus. Effecting simultaneous change in too many aspects of your life requires careful management. It could render you confused and overwhelmed. Change requires resisting well-established behavioral patterns, which means that you will be working against unconscious, automatic processes in the brain that are designed to make life easier. Resisting what is already a formed habit requires effort, which may leave you depleted at the end of the day if you have to work on multiple fronts at the same time.

Moreover, when you link two or more changes together, a failure in one may make you abandon the other, especially in the beginning. Imagine, for example, that you decide to lose weight. So what do you do? The most popular response: Diet and exercise. However, changing the way you eat and adding exercise to your daily routine are two different things, even though they are linked to the same goal. Targeting them simultaneously increases the probability of setbacks in both. On the day that you skip exercise, you may also find yourself indulging in your favorite ice cream.

2. One change involves other changes

Changing one habit involves other small-scale changes that you have to be aware of and prepared for. Let’s go back to the weight loss example. You decide to change the way you eat. You have to choose a diet regimen—consult a nutritionist, restrict calories, intermittent fasting, cleansing, keto, paleo, weight watchers—there are thousands of choices. After you make your choice, you have to make other changes as well. For example, where you shop for groceries, what you buy, how you prepare it, how you serve it, when you eat it, and so on. Failing to pay attention to all these small-scale changes may thwart your efforts to change a habit.

3. The status quo is comfortable

Another major reason that makes change difficult is that we are not ready and willing for change. We may be comfortable where we are and even scared to step into the unknown. As long as our current state provides us with comfort and security, making the change will be difficult. Talking about change and doing something about it are two different things. In their transtheoretical model of change, Prochaska and DiClemente describe the different stages that people who seek change go through (pre-contemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, maintenance, termination) to illustrate the difference between wanting change and doing something about it.

4. Unclear about the benefits of change

Besides being too comfortable where we are, or being too scared to make a change, what makes change seem difficult is that we are not really convinced about how much better life will be after we make the change. Is all the effort worth it? How is my life going to be better? How are my relationships going to be better? The lack of clear benefit makes it hard to convince ourselves to put effort toward something whose appeal is not evident. We may not like our current state, but if there is no desired state to aspire to, change becomes redundant. Being unable to envision what life will be like after the transformation dampens our motivation.

5. The change is broad and vague

In his book Changeology, psychologist John Norcross, who specializes in the science of change, identifies four major categories of things that people express the desire to change: The first category involves “behavioral excesses.” These changes target undesirable habits that lead to overconsumption, such as drinking too much alcohol, watching too much television, or spending too much money on online shopping. The second category involves “behavioral improvements.” These changes involve developing new skills or adding new practices to our lives. Examples of this kind of change include learning to play a musical instrument, exercising more, or practicing meditation on a regular basis. The third category involves changes in interpersonal relationships, an effort toward relationship upgrades. These changes could range from having a better relationship with your significant other to broadening your social network. The last category of change is, what I would call, a quality-of-life upgrade. These are higher-level, broader, and less well-defined changes that are reflected in self-improvement goals or goals for a better life.

Changing the way you eat can be challenging. But at least it targets a specific, observable behavior. You can look at your plate and determine if you made good choices, consistent with your desire to change.

But the quality-of-life upgrade type of changes are broad and undefined. How do I change the way I think, how do I become a better person, how do I turn my life around? Unless we break them down into specific, measurable components, these kinds of changes are more likely to remain unaccomplished.

6. Abandoning efforts too quickly

Another reason that makes change appear difficult is impatience. When we don’t see results fast, we will not be incentivized to continue the effort to change. And without effort, there is no result. Giving up too quickly is why many diets don’t work, why many of us do not work out regularly, and why many people feel stuck in life. A solid, sustainable change is likely to follow many half-starts, many failed attempts, and many moments of frustration and disappointment. This is why resilience is important. Prepare for slip-ups ahead of time, create contingencies to allow for failure, and remind yourself often that this is part of the process of change.

7. Changing other people

If you are looking to fail, try changing another person. Our ability to change someone else is extremely limited. When the focus is on changing how someone else feels, thinks, or acts, we may end up disappointed, frustrated, angry, and hurt. Despite our best intentions, our most persuasive approaches, or our darkest manipulations, a person will not change just because we said so. The only thing we can change is how we connect and relate to other people. This does not mean that we shouldn’t offer help, guidance, or opinion when asked to. But change itself is each person’s individual task and duty. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. So, if you are finding changing other people difficult, shift your focus to changing you.

More from Theo Tsaousides Ph.D.
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