What is the single biggest transformation you want to make in 2023 that would have a major impact for you and the people you lead?
This is the question we are bringing to our Leaders Collectives this month. It’s a tough question to answer and even tougher to achieve.
Whatever that transformation is, the biggest challenge lies in making the change stick. Setting goals is easy work; achieving and sustaining them is hard. Just think of the new year resolutions we make with good intentions, only to abandon them in short order. In fact, the data says that most crumble away within the first six weeks of the year.
When I found myself making the same resolutions each year, I stopped making them. I didn’t give up on my desire to make changes or achieve goals, but I realized that simply making proclamations and counting on willpower wasn’t the way to get there.
When it comes to making sustainable changes, there are many forces at play that make it extremely difficult. I know, I’ve experienced all the barriers and it made me curious to learn more. So today I share those learnings and highlight three roadblocks that might get in our way.
Roadblock #1: We are wired to resist change
Neuroscience research shows that the amygdala (the fight/flight/freeze part of the brain) works in a protective way and is resistant to change. Therefore, any goals that require substantial behavioural change or thinking-pattern change will automatically be resisted. Let’s look at the biological barrier of homeostasis, which George Leonard explains in his book Mastery.
“Every one of us resists significant change, no matter whether it’s for the worse or for the better. Our body, brain, and behavior have a built-in tendency to stay the same within rather narrow limits, and to snap back when changed—and it’s a very good thing they do. Just think about it: if your body temperature moved up or down by 10 percent, you’d be in big trouble. This condition of equilibrium, this resistance to change, is called homeostasis. It characterizes all self-regulating systems including social systems.”
The resistance to change is not only internal (feeling discomfort, stress or anxiety) but can also come from your team, peers, family or friends. That’s because we operate in complex ecosystems that have many inter-relationships, patterns and feedback loops.
As Leonard points out, “Bear in mind that an entire system has to change when any part of it changes. It’s not that we don’t want change or that others don’t want to support you, it’s just homeostasis at work.”
So how do we tackle the biological roadblocks?
The key in making any change is to expect resistance and backlash — our own and others. If we are aware of it, we can prepare for it. It starts with having a systems perspective which elevates our view, allowing us to see patterns, interactions and the role we play more clearly and objectively. Part of that, says Leonard, is to be willing to negotiate with your resistance. It’s not about ignoring it or pushing through; it’s about recognizing and understanding that we are reaching the boundaries of our comfort zone so we can make decisions that either give us space or move us forward.
He also suggests not going it alone and developing a support system to help you make the change and stay accountable.
What can you put in place to tackle the inevitable resistance to the change you want to make?
Roadblock #2: We focus on goals not systems
“You do not rise to the level of your goals; you fall to the level of your systems. Goals can provide direction and even push you forward in the short-term, but eventually a well-designed system will always win.”
For me, this was the biggest lesson from James Clear in his book Atomic Habits.
Systems help you shift behaviours and develop sustainable habits. They map the journey between here and there. They become part of your desired identity.
And it works. Last year, I built better systems to change two habits; read more books and exercise daily.
The system I used to read more books was to stack a desired habit (read a chapter every day) on top of a proven habit (my morning cup of coffee). Reading is now associated with drinking coffee, and I can’t do one without the other. The outcome? A chapter a day compounds, and I read many books last year.
My goal to exercise daily was backed up by a system that looked like this:
- Rather than focus on the outcome (more exercise), I embraced my identity as ‘a person who exercises daily’.
- My goal was to exercise a minimum of 10 minutes every day. Almost always, 10 minutes leads to a longer workout, but even on my worst days I can do 10 minutes. Repetition establishes the habit.
- I reduced the friction between me and my exercise by quitting the gym that was 20 minutes from home to one that was a 7-minute drive.
- Every night I lay out my exercise gear. It’s the first thing I see in the morning and it prompts me.
These days, daily reading and exercise are established habits.
As you think about your change, what system can you build to support it?
Roadblock #3: We try to do too much all at once
The new year can bring about a surge of motivation and ambition. We make long lists of all the goals we want to accomplish in the coming year.
There are so many, it’s hard to know where to start. And that’s the problem.
Multiple goals that require effort, behaviour change and systems to achieve them, overwhelm us and that becomes the barrier to action. We become less committed to the goals, and they eventually fall by the wayside.
In his blog, Master One Thing, James Clear points to research that implementation intentions only work when you focus on one thing at a time. He writes, “In fact, researchers found that people who tried to accomplish multiple goals were less committed and less likely to succeed than those who focused on a single goal.”
The better approach is to focus on one goal —preferably one that personally motivates you that will have the greatest impact and has the greatest chance of success.
Questions to ask yourself as you think about your priority goal:
What will achieving this change do you for you, your team and others?
Why does this matter?
What is your desired future state?
What behaviour change is required – from what to what?
In six months from now, how will you know you are making progress?
Clear also cites research that shows you are 2x to 3x more likely to stick with your habits if you make a specific plan for when, where, and how you will perform the behavior.
Write it down. Say it out loud. Tell others!
For many, the new year is a time of renewal and optimism. If we want to make meaningful and impactful change that sticks, know there will be resistance and prepare for it, create systems to mobilize the change, and keep it to a single goal. When you’ve mastered that goal, you can pick another.
So as you think about the coming year and all the abundance of 2023, I leave with these questions to help you move forward:
What’s the single biggest transformation you want to make in 2023 that would have a major impact for you and the people you lead?
What’s your plan to make that transformation come to life?
Happy New Year!