Don't Give Up on Change

This week's question for Ask the Coach:

Change is hard. It takes forever and I don't even know if it's working. Any tips for making this process easier?

Change takes longer than we think and the process is difficult. Acknowledging these facts can make your attempts more successful. My co-author Dr. Kelly Goldsmith, Assistant Professor of Marketing at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management, and I researched why people give up on their goals. We discovered that there are five common reasons. Understanding these roadblocks will help you apply some preventive medicine — and increase the odds that you won't fall into the same old traps.

1. Ownership
"I wasn't sure that this would work in the first place. I tried it out — it didn't do that much good. As I guessed, this was kind of a waste of time."

The classic mistake made in leadership development, coaching, and self-help books is the promise that "This will make you better!" After years of experience in helping real leaders change real behavior in the real world, I have learned a hard lesson. Only you will make you better.

To have a real chance of success, you have to take personal ownership and have the internal belief that "This will work if, and only if, I make it work. I am going to make this work."

2. Time
"I had no idea that this process would take so long. I'm not sure it's worth it."

Goal setters have a chronic tendency to underestimate the time needed to reach targets. In setting our goals for behavioral change, it's important to be realistic about the time we need to produce positive, lasting results. Habits that have taken years to develop won't go away in a week. Set time expectations that are 50% to 100% longer than you think you will need to see results — then add a little more.

3. Difficulty
"This is a lot harder than I thought it would be. It sounded so simple when we were starting out."

The optimism bias of goal setters applies to difficulty as well as time. Not only does everything take longer than we think it will, but it also requires more hard work than we anticipate.

In setting goals, it's important to accept the fact that real change requires real work. Acknowledging the price for success in the beginning of the change process will help prevent the disappointment that can occur when challenges arise later.

4. Distractions
"I would really like to work toward my goal, but I'm facing some unique challenges right now. It might be better if I just stopped and did this at a time when things weren't so crazy."

Goal setters have a tendency to underestimate the distractions and competing goals that will invariably appear throughout the year. A piece of advice that I give all of my coaching clients is: "I'm not sure what crisis will appear, but I'm almost positive that some crisis will appear."

Plan for distractions in advance. Assume that crazy is the new normal. You will probably be close to the reality that awaits.

5. Maintenance
"I think that I did actually try to change and get better, but I have let it slide since then. What am I supposed to do — work on this stuff the rest of my life?"

Once a goal setter has put in all of the effort needed to achieve a goal, it can be tough for him to face the reality of what's needed to maintain the new status quo. When one of my high-potential leaders asked his boss, the CEO, "Do I have to watch what I say and do for the rest of my career?" the CEO replied, "You do if you plan on ever becoming a CEO!"

Here are the cold, hard truths. Real change requires real effort. The "quick fix" is seldom a meaningful one. Distractions and things that compete for your attention are going to crop up — frequently. Changing any one type of behavior won't solve all of life's problems. And finally, any meaningful change will probably require a lifetime of effort.

Readers: Do you give up too soon? Do you have tips on following through with change? I'd love to hear from you. Please send me your comments.

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