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Untangling: Why Behavior Change is So Darn Hard

Most of us believe that we are fairly conscious about the decisions and choices we make, when in reality, our life experiences have programmed our brains to think, anticipate and respond in ways—both positive and negative—that are consistent with our pasts. Our brains have the amazing capacity to constantly learn, organize and then store vast amounts of information into a “library” that can be referenced later as needed. We can re-train our brains to work in new ways for us.

Behavior change is hard, at least for most of us. Even when we know it’s important, we may struggle. In my years of coaching executives, I find that people struggle with change not because they don’t know what to do, but because they have to look at who they are and what they believe. 

To explain what I mean, I’ll introduce you to David, an executive who was stuck. My hope is that some of his challenge will resonate with you and give you ideas on how to get unstuck. Applying these ideas will certainly increase your odds of success. First, a little background on how our brains work.


How the Brain Works

Most of us believe that we are fairly conscious about the decisions and choices we make, when in reality, our life experiences have programmed our brains to think, anticipate and respond in ways—both positive and negative—that are consistent with our pasts. Our brains have the amazing capacity to constantly learn, organize and then store vast amounts of information into a “library” that can be referenced later as needed. A lot of this information is stored in our unconscious minds.


The brain is also very efficient. Scientists estimate that we filter 400 billion bits of information per second and that we may be aware of about 2,000 of them. Our library of stored information helps the brain determine what to bring to our attention and filters out the rest. Of course, you can tell your brain to focus upon something in particular and it will, but most of the time it carries on without your conscious involvement.


Beliefs are part of our library. They are learned and often become hard-wired into our unconscious minds. For example, if you believe that people are untrustworthy, it will be very hard for you to behave in ways that demonstrate trust in others. Instead, your brain will look for evidence that people are untrustworthy to prove you right. There may be ample evidence of trustworthiness, but your attention will focus on the few bits of information that fit into your library of beliefs. We unconsciously look for data that reinforces what we already know to be true – even if it isn’t.


David, the Disorganized Executive
Let’s return to David, an executive whom I was coaching. When I met him, his goal was to get organized and stay organized. He believed that his lack of organization was negatively impacting his chances for promotion, and he was frustrated with himself. He had a strong desire to change but “had tried everything and nothing worked.” David could see the practical value of most of the strategies and tactics he had tried, but none of them worked for him. He declared, half-joking, that he must be missing the “organization” gene.

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