Why Most of us Fail at Change

We are always changing. Regardless of our external stimuli, each day we wake up a little different than the last. Some of us change faster than others, but we all experience and desire some degree of change on a regular basis. Almost all change we experience is so incremental that we cannot actively measure it. Desire for change is in theory limitless, and because of the extraordinary properties of our imaginations, this desire commonly inhabits our thoughts.

A great deal of literature surrounding the subject of personal growth and change has been present for almost a century. Unfortunately, most of the work produced by the self help industry has yielded little measurable impact on our ability to change more effectively. Self help books first became popular during the 1930s; the poor economy created a large market for hope and the desire for change. As it tends to do, history repeated itself. Various trends in self help have been present throughout the past few decades, all pandering to the major existential crisis in society at the time.

In the 1930s, Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich helped assuage the woes of the poor economy. In the 1950s, Normal Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking described the keys to a stable and happy domestic life; perfect for the post-WWII generation. When the Baby Boomers were experiencing a mid-life crisis during the 1980s, Tony Robbins released Unlimited Power to target self-actualization and living up to your potential. One of the most popular self help books today is Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret, which brings a more narcissistic, self-centered approach to the same self-help platitudes.


Most mainstream self-help books all offer essentially the same advice, packaged slightly differently depending on the cover of the book: stay positive, ignore self-doubt, visualize your goals, and eventually you’ll get what you want. Self-help and the self-proclaimed gurus that preach it usually present themselves in an almost prophetic fashion, applying the same rhetoric that religions have used for thousands of years. It’s anecdotal, based in pseudoscientific methods, and doomed to fail from the start because the advice isn’t empirically validated.

A typical self-help author is nothing more than a skilled marketer; their programs are almost never supported by any substantial evidence, and they prey upon vulnerable individuals who cannot discern between quality evidence and anecdotal, feel-good stories. Additionally, the authors themselves are not products of their programs; they’re products of selling their programs to others. It’s a very disingenuous field, but because of our constant desire for change, self-help is a multi-billion dollar industry.

What’s most unfortunate about this situation is that many people most desperate for change turn to the field of self-help for guidance, only to end up disappointed. We blame ourselves for the failure without realizing that these are broken processes. One seminar or workshop will not change your life; this is simply not how change is achieved. Unfortunately, this quick-fix, magic pill approach that we apply to so many areas in our life is a massive inhibitor on achievement.

Even if we’re not currently dedicated to a self-help regime, there is a good chance every one of us has change of some degree on our minds. Unfortunately, most of us experience a paradox of change: the ability to enact change is hindered by the thought of change. Otherwise known as analysis paralysis, the inability to act as a result of overthinking is a huge detriment to our ability to enact change. This phenomenon occurs due to the amount of choice, a lack of planning, and the sheer amount of information most of us have to sift through on a regular basis.

I can attest to numerous times when I had to complete an essay, but instead of writing, I would just read paper after paper all in an effort to trick myself into thinking I was accomplishing something. The reality is, reading is easier than writing, so all I was doing was delaying the actual task at hand and productively procrastinating. I should have produced a list, limited my selection of information, and limited how much of it I was consuming. Because many of the changes we focus on are relatively large, the difficulty of execution that comes with these changes is also quite high. Due to our propensity to focus on the product and not the process of a change, we fail in the execution of many of our goals.


Consider a simple, dynamic system. If we break the system down into two functions, change and stability, we can begin to analyze how the two interact. Our first prediction would likely be that change initially makes something more unstable. If we consider a simple chemical reaction – adding a Gummi bear to potassium chlorate – we would see this prediction hold true. The reaction eventually subsides and the system stabilizes, but during the initial phase of the reaction, there was clearly instability present in the system.

The changes in a chemical reaction happen incredibly quickly, so while we are not a simple chemical reaction, we are each still a system. External stimuli influence our internal state and stability, and we have inputs and outputs. A sudden drop in temperature, someone paying us a compliment, or a bite of our breakfast all impact us in some way. These are all relatively insignificant changes, but what happens when you decide to create a lasting change like trying a new diet, starting a new business, or trying a new workout routine?

If you’re like most people, you fail to make a measurable impact with your attempt at change. Most of us know that the full gyms on January 2nd will empty out by the end of the month as eager New Year’s resolutionists gradually secede to their lifestyle of yesteryear. We know that most people who lose weight end up putting it back on later. We know that nine out of every ten businesses fail. We blame it on the same platitudes: you weren’t passionate enough, you didn’t stick to the plan, and you just didn’t want it bad enough. All of this empty advice parroted by various individuals fails to capture several key components in the equation – namely, humans are motivated by certain stimuli – but what is rarely discussed is our capacity for change.

If we break down change into a few basic components, we begin to see where our errors most commonly lie.


Adopted from a DevOps article by Prof. Charles Betz

In the above diagram, we can see how the various components of change interact. While the simple diagram above is meant to explain how a DevOps team functions in terms of change related to stability, the principles of systems dynamics are applicable to any system, whether that system is a team or a single individual. If you change more often, in smaller increments, your capability for change increases, which decreases the risks associated with you changing. This in turn increases your stability. Something that is more stable is less likely to fail, unlike this bridge:




So how can we apply this thinking to real life to actually make a difference in how we achieve change? Let’s take a common scenario where change is involved and work through it: starting a weight loss plan by joining a gym.


The problem with most changes is that we think too big. Goal-setting is often cursed with ambitious overconfidence when it should be blessed with incremental humility. In the case of our hypothetical situation, instead of setting a goal to lose 15 pounds, it makes more sense from a systems dynamics perspective to set a goal to go to the gym twice a week. The big obstacle at play isn’t losing weight. What’s really difficult for our individual in our scenario is the change of physically going to a gym. A change that is smaller in size but still routine will be more achievable. Gradually, this can increase as our system gains the capability for more change. After a routine number of visits has been started, then a more lofty goal of an actual weight target can be established.

The same problem can be seen time and time again as people try to make a radical change in their life through some sort of epiphany or ultimatum. Dramatic change is noble and attractive, but it rarely materializes in the virtually instantaneous way it is often portrayed in various forms of media. The most stunning personal transformations take years, sometimes decades, before they materialize into their end result. To change for the better, one needs to accept the joys of the routine and the mundane. The process of great personal change is not glamourous. Those who remain humble and composed achieve the most results.

To begin a path of effective change, it is essential to work in short, measurable targets. Large projects undertaken by businesses are most successful if there is routine check-ins, weekly goals, and a progression of small changes to enact a large one. All major changes do need a kick-off point, but a common pattern seen in change efforts is to invest all energy into the beginning of the initiative with little thought on how to sustain progress and keep the participants engaged.

How many times have we seen someone announce that a new business or awareness campaign, create an elaborate launch for it, and then have its pulse barely register within a few months? I am sure all of us can relate, perhaps on a level of our own personal experience. Sustaining an initiative is inherently boring because of the nature of small change and the daily, mundane tasks that must be accomplished in order to achieve the larger goal at play. Much of the process is painful and monotonous, which is why we consider major transformations so remarkable. Dr. John Kotter of Harvard Business School argues that “the reason most changes fail is that victory is declared too early, and that real change runs deep.”

Despite the opinion that we hold of ourselves, humans interact with the world in remarkably similar and predictable ways. How we grow and develop is no exception. By applying basic principles of systems dynamics, it is evident why personal growth and change is so difficult when we approach new initiatives with a grandiose intent. In addition to the natural difficulty of change much of the popular literature and advice surrounding change is based on anecdotal evidence and disingenuous methods. Beware of confirmation bias, one of the most dangerous mental states that runs so prevalent in the world today.

It is important to recognize that change is difficult but manageable. Produce routine, frequent changes that will help condition yourself as a system that will be more resilient and stable in the long run. Any large personal change is not a short-term solution, and it is rarely glamourous. Based on some basic principles of systems dynamics, routine incremental change rooted in humility can help achieve better returns in our approach to personal growth and change.