Success strategies: Changing is hard — but “change” doesn’t have to be

Craig Duswalt, who toured with Air Supply and was the former manager of Guns & Roses' Axl Rose, once shared the following story with me at one of his Rockstar System for Success bootcamps which he conducts twice a year. The significance of the story was not lost on me and made its point very quickly -- see if it does the same for you:

change is hard how to succeedA [2006] medical study reveals just how difficult change is for people. Roughly 600,000 people have heart bypasses each year in America.  These people are told that, after their bypass surgery, they must change their lifestyle. The surgery they are having is just a temporary fix.  In order to live productive lives after the surgery, they will need to change their diet. They have to quit smoking and drinking.  They must exercise regularly and lower their stress. Essentially, what the doctors are telling them is, "Change or die."

Now, you'd think that having a near-death experience would get patients' attention. You'd think they would be all for any change that kept them from this experience again. You'd think this "change or die" message would be so compelling that they would make whatever change was necessary to get them healthy.  Unfortunately, this is not the case.

90% of these heart patients do not change. They remain the same, living their same status quo lives.  Repeated studies show that two years after their surgery, these patients have not altered their behavior. Instead of making changes for health, they choose death. For them, change is that difficult. Rather than make the changes that promote life, they continue on the path toward death.


The moral of this story is obvious, but amazing: change is hard.  The "difficulty" of change overcomes the benefits of that change.

What does this mean for us?  The New Year is traditionally a time where we all make promises to ourselves -- and sometimes others -- that we are going to make changes in our lives.  Whether it's to lose weight, eat less/exercise more, stop smoking, stop drinking, spend more time with family instead of late nights at your desk, make more money, get more clients...whatever it is...we start the year out saying to ourselves, "This is it, Bullwinkle! This time I'll really change!"

Yeah, right?  If 90% of heart patients don't change their lifestyle after being told they must do it to live, how likely is it that we will be able to fulfill our plans for change when it's not life-or-death?

The odds don't look very good from that perspective, do they?

But, there is good news here, really.  Tony Robbins once explained how change happens. Essentially, we keep doing something over and over again because, on some level, it works for us.  For example, say we are addicted to junk food. We keep eating junk food, even when we know it's bad for us, because the pleasure of eating it outweighs (no pun intended) the negative effects -- weight gain, poor health, cavities from excess sugar, etc. It's the "pain vs. pleasure" scenario.  If, at some point, "pain" (or negative effects) outweigh the "pleasure" point, that's when we decide to change.  We hit a tipping point where we just can't stand how flabby we have become, or a child says to grandpa or grandma that they don't want a kiss because they stink from cigarettes. Something really hits us that says, "I'm not going to do this anymore."

Everyone's "pain threshold" is different and individual, however. It might take one person who gets a hangover after over-indulging alcohol to decide to stop drinking, while someone else's DUI arrest isn't enough to spark the change. And, once that point is reached, just making the commitment to change isn't always sufficient to keep it going. There must be a new "win" from the change that keeps reinforcing that change -- a new pleasure.

So, let's say that you have decided, like so many out there, to exercise regularly to get into shape and lose weight. What typically happens? You get a gym membership, hit the weights or the aerobics daily at first. You get up the next day and what...your muscles are SORE.  Parts of your anatomy you didn't even knew existed are screaming!  And, that pain registers in your brain as a negative. You decide to take a few days off, but get back into it. Again, more soreness..more pain. You decide to take it a bit easier. Then, after a month of this kind of cycle, you decide that, overall, this isn't worth it. Not only did this hurt, but it cost you time, it may have cost you money...and you've seen no improvement in your shape, your condition, or your weight!  It's not worth it, right? Negative, negative, negative.  And then the worst...there's more negative because, once again, you've failed in your resolution to get healthier.

Sound familiar? We've ALL been there.

What, then, can we do to see success in change rather than failure, you ask?  Actually, it's really not all that hard. Let's explore how to make change stick.

  • First, be reasonable in the change you desire

There are "better" types of goals than others.  For example, if I decided I wanted to be 5'6" tall, that is completely unrealistic (impossible, in fact, as I'm 5'3"!) That's not a goal I can achieve no matter what I do. What if you decide you want to make a million dollars by the end of this year.  Is that reasonable?  Well, it depends. Assess where you are now.  If your path to the million is to self-publish a book, and sell it for $10 a piece, you have to sell 100,000 of those books in order to make your million. Is that reasonable? It might be, depending on your outlet and distribution opportunities.  Now, say you have this book, but also do professional speaking promoting your message. Say you charge $1000 per speaking engagement. You now have to only "sell" 10,000 "units" of your product (your speech) to make your million in a year. Oh, but since you'll also likely sell books at your speeches, maybe you only have to give 9,000 speeches because you'll make up the rest in book sales. BUT, now think if you "sold" coaching to your clients at $10,000 a "program," you only have to have 100 of those clients in order to reach your goal of $1M a year.

  • Next, set realistic goals.

In the example above, maybe, after you've looked at the numbers, making a million dollars in the first year isn't realistic.  I mean, you might be able to get 100 new clients for your coaching program, but is it likely you can do that, particularly at the beginning?  No, not really. You might not even have the bandwidth to get those 100 clients.  Maybe you need to lower your initial goals and say you'll shoot for 20 clients this year and maybe that will allow you to hire an assistant who can offload some of your other work so that next year you can focus on new coaching clients and maybe increase them to 50 a year.

  • Now, start the new activities you'll need to realize those initial goals

In the $1M example, once you're set those goals you'll pursue initially, start taking the action that will get you to those goals.  If you are looking for more clients, how will you get them? Maybe you have to join a trade association. Perhaps you'll get the clients through networking -- make your list and start "connecting." Perhaps you'll have to change a negative behavior -- stop wasting so much time playing "Angry Birds" -- so that you have more time to do the things that you need to do to reach your goals. Whatever it is, take a step. In spite of what you hear in so many "self-help" books, "change" doesn't occur merely by sitting in your living room visualizing a million dollars. You can visualize, but you must take action.

  • When you have taken action, reward yourself for the change

To replace the earlier "pleasure" you got from the undesired tendency or habit you used to have, give yourself a pleasurable reward when you have done the positive thing you are looking to do. When you get a new client, reward yourself with a movie, for example. If you have lost 5 lbs on your new diet, maybe go out shopping for a new sweater (food, by the way, is a powerful, but not also advisable reward!)  With each accomplishment, give yourself a figurative "pat on the back" in the way of a reward.  Remember human psychology 101: we are more likely to be motivated by positive recognition for positive behavior. Give yourself the positive reinforcement of your new behavior that will motivate you to continue.

  • Finally, don't give up if things aren't happening right away

Sociologists will tell you that it takes 8 new "actions" for every iteration of an old action that we want to change.  What that means is, the more entrenched and "normal" our previous behaviors are, the longer it takes to change them. This is why we tend to give up too quickly when making life changes: we don't see immediate results. We don't get the six-pack from our crunches right away so we decide these exercises aren't working for us.  We haven't lost the urge to smoke after 3 weeks so we give in -- then decide we're a failure and we're right back into two packs a day.  We haven't made $.3M by April, so we decide there's no way we're going to hit our target of $1M by December. So we quit. And, often that "pain" threshold where we give up is just at that point where we are about to make a breakthrough...

Remember the point at the beginning where 90% of the people told they must make changes or die didn't do it? You have to decide if you want to be in the 90% of those who can't -- or won't -- or if the change you are looking for is important enough to you to commit to the discomfort of making the change.  If so, then set yourself up for success by making a plan for the changes you want to make, work the plan, then celebrate your little successes.

Yes, I know, change is hard. But, if it were easy, anyone can do it. How 'bout you? Will you be in the 10% that does -- that's up to you!


- Corinne Gregory is a motivational speaker covering topics of social skills and personal/professional success and the author of "It's Not Who You Know, It's How You Treat Them." To book her for your group or for individual coaching, drop her an email at


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