Why is change so hard?

And why am I even writing a blog post about this?

I’m sure you think I just educate people about nutrition and stuff.

And you’d be right.

But the main thing I do is help people to change.

Although I’m a nutritionist, sleep science coach, stress management coach etc, I don’t really spend a shitload of time talking about those things in my coaching sessions.

The main thing I do when I’m coaching clients is figure out

a) why they haven’t been able to change in the past and

b) how to make change stick for them this time

Still not convinced I should be talking about this?

When I worked in the corporate world, I was a 24 year old project manager who had to go and stand on a factory floor full of hostile trade union people and explain to them why the time and attendance management system I was implementing was not to check up on them.

To get me through that experience I had to understand behaviour change psychology.

I had to understand that these people were frightened.

It was fear of are we being checked up on?

It was fear of how long will this new system take to operate?

In a factory you’re judged on your efficiencies.

Will this make it take longer?Will I lose my job?

Is this a new system that replaces something else?

I had to recognise why they were behaving like that, and try and reassure them.

So if I can do that with them, you better believe I can help you do it with your health.

People come to me with goals like

* getting healthy

* losing some fat

* living longer

* having more energy

* being more productive

They tend to focus on the physical discomfort that’s going to bring.

They might be thinking about how they’re going to be really hungry and tired all the time, how they’re going to feel stressed and exhausted all the time from having to learn new things.

They’re not really considering the mental and emotional aspects of change.

And that’s the thing that will make the difference.

When I have that initial conversation with someone I need to assess where they are.

How ready they are for change?

I use something called the transtheoretical model (Prochaska, DiClemente, & Norcross, 1992).

I know, sounds fancy, but stick with me here.💁🏼‍♀️

It’s basically a roadmap for trying to change your behaviour with five stages (actually six but I’ll get on to that).

There are some stages where it’s not relevant to take a client on, and it took me a long time to realise that.

As a coach, I care about people and used to be a bit of a ‘fixer’, but some people just aren’t ready to be ‘fixed’.

My job is to figure out WHERE the person is, WHY they’re there, and move them onto the next stage.

The first stages is what we call pre contemplation.

I do get people come to me in this stage, usually saying things like:

‘My doctor said I need to lose some weight.’

‘My wife is worried about me’

These people are still in denial.

They don’t really believe they’ve got a problem, or they don’t fully understand their current behaviours could have some serious repercussions.

They’re not really sure what the problem is, or they can’t really see it.

I’ve taken on people in that stage before, I’ve to drag them kicking and screaming through the process!

Which is really fucking unpleasant for both of us.

So now I tend to point them in the direction of some resources that might help them and get them to come back when they’re ready.

Because I know at some point, where they are right now will be more painful than the effort needed to move away from there.

Most people who come to me are in the next stage – contemplation.

On our initial call, I listen a lot to people’s language.

I can either listen for what I call sustain language, or change language.

People tend to be quite ambivalent in this stage.

They know they need to change but there’s a lot of mixed messages coming through.

‘Yeah, I know that I need to get healthier because I feel tired all the time, but I don’t really like vegetables, I don’t really like doing exercise’.

They know there’ll be benefits to changing but they’re also acutely aware of the costs.

They’re genuinely frightened of changing.

They’re worried about what’s going to happen.

It takes some skill to spot these people because they can come across as quite defensive and you need to chip away a little bit to get to the bottom of it.

If I take people on in this stage it’s very much a gentle approach – we start off small, easy changes that will be super impactful on their number one pain point.

  • If they have zero energy, I get them drinking loads of water.
  • If they have a typical ‘dieting mindset’ and are worried about failing, I’ll talk about dietary abundance and what they can be ADDING to their plate, rather than restriction.

Simple but effective is the way to go with these people.

Then we have the preparation stage where people are actually being a lot more positive about changing.

They start conceptualising – ‘If I were to change, how could I make this happen?’

Now we’re into the REAL work around how that person can change.

My job with people at this stage is to be a guide. To help them visualise where a particular path might take them & to show them the possibilities.

If you think about those first three stages, we haven’t done anything yet.

We haven’t changed a fucking thing!

But those three stages, require a huge amount of mental and emotional energy.

Before you’ve even taken any action, you’re probably a bit fucking sick of thinking about taking action.

You’re probably thinking,

‘Oh, my God this is taking a lot headspace? Do I want to change? Do I need to change? If I do need to change, how would I do it?’.

That’s why, when it comes to actually taking action (the fourth stage), a lot of people can’t sustain it for long enough to see any benefits.

Then on top of that, you add all the physical stuff.

  • They’re going to be a bit hungry cos they’re trying to eat less.
  • They’re going to be tired because they start walking or going to the gym.
  • They’re going to feel a but stressed from all the change and maybe that affects their sleep.

Now you’re using physical, mental and emotional energy.

It’s fucking exhausting.😱

That’s why my job, at this stage, is to use all my academic PLUS experiential knowledge to make sure the actions they’re taking are the right ones.

They take action, we look at the outcome and we change course (or not), depending on what that outcome is.

They’re short on resources so it’s my job to make sure we’re using the most efficient and effective strategies FOR THEM.

It’s not always right first time as humans are strange and individual beings 🤣.

But what I can give them here is plenty of positive reinforcement, to be their very own cheerleader.📣

To lend them a little of my belief until they can build some of their own.

Are you starting to see why it’s so difficult to change?

So when do you move to maintenance, the fifth stage?

You’ll probably find a lot of stuff on the internet telling you it takes 84 days to form a new habit.

And yes, based on many research papers, that is the mean number.

But this is one circumstance where I tend not to hold hard and fast to the evidence, and go with my experience with hundreds of clients.

The way measure whether my client has entered maintenance phase?

Can they still maintain the habit when shit hits the fan? 💩

Because shit happens.

Shit ALWAYS happens.

And when it does, do you revert back to old coping mechanisms? How long for? Temporarily?

Or do you reassess, readjust and pick habits right back up again straight after?

I call it readjusting your burners (a concept created by James Clear in his book Atomic Habits).

If you can turn the heat (focus) down on certain habits when it needs to be turned UP on others, (AKA, being adaptable without fucking everything else up), then you my friend are in maintenance.

Congratulations!

Everything is peachy now right?

Sorry, I forgot to mention the sixth stage, which isn’t actually a stage – relapse.🙄

Thing is, those other five stages, they’re not linear; you can bounce up and down between them.

You’re going to go backwards, you’re going to go forwards.

And relapse is hard – you need to deal with anger, disappointment, frustration, feeling like a failure.

Don’t feel like a failure.

It’s just your brain doing it’s job, trying to keep you safe.

Your previous habits, however unhelpful, are comfortable and familiar.

Those learned behaviours have created pathways in your brain that you tread over and over.

So just when you are making a change and you’re feeling positive about it, this sparks something in your brain, to say

‘hang on, when we do this, we don’t normally behave like this, we normally run this pattern. Let’s go back’.

So you go back.

Changing these neural networks, these pathways in your brain is hard, but it is possible.

So what’s my role when you relapse?

I’ll be there to help you identify the patterns and triggers that cause these relapses, and come up with strategies to deal with them.

We identify the trigger, find out where the resistance is and provide an alternative course of action.

A distraction or a replacement for the unhelpful coping mechanism.

We revisit your goals, I invoke my ‘unique’ cheerleading methods 🤣, and we go again.

Now, you may be reading all this thinking ‘why fucking bother?’

It’s going to take so long.

Why don’t I just go with the coach who does a 12 week programme of counting macros?

Which of course is your choice.

But let me just say, if you’re trying to turn ingrained habits into lifelong behaviour change, it ain’t gonna take 12 fucking weeks.

Sorry to piss on your chips.

I’ve helped hundreds of people change their behaviours for life and change their lives as a result.

All of my one to one clients get unlimited support from me, because I have an appreciation of how difficult it is to change your behaviours.

Because that’s what it takes.

Because it’s not about throwing a set of macros at you and checking in with them once a week to see if you’ve hit them.

I’m not really interested in that.

I mean I know that counting macros and being in a deficit for 12 weeks means they’ll hit their weight goal.

A lot of other nutritionists or coaches would deem that a success, right?

That is a failure.

For me, that’s a failure; because I know all they’ve done is followed a set of rules for 12 weeks.

They’ve changed physically but not mentally, intellectually, emotionally.

They WILL put the weight back on and they WILL feel like a failure, yet again.

I would actually leave them in a worse state than I found them.

And that wouldn’t sit right with me.

If you’re finding it hard to change, maybe I can help you?

Comment below & let me know what you’re struggling with.

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