Skip links

Beyond willpower: Why it’s so hard to change

“What is really holding you back?”

This was the main question Center for Asia Leadership Teaching Fellow Umar Shavurov posed to participants at the Asia Leadership Conference on March 1, at Sunway University.

The answer is probably the same for a slightly overweight yuppie trying to shed a few pounds and for someone whose life practically hinges on a targeted change like regularly saving money.  According to Umar, who holds an MPA from the Harvard Kennedy School, the reason why people fail to change is because of “hidden assumptions” they subconsciously have about themselves and others.

‘Our own enemies’

“Something is actually going to hold you back. Most of the time it’s stuff within us that hold us back. We are our biggest enemies, our own enemies. There’s nobody else,” he said.

Giving the workshop “Identifying and Addressing Hidden Barriers to Change,” Shavurov said people naturally have an “immunity to change” or a resistance to doing something new because “our software” or mindset tends to see anything new “as a threat.” This is why, he explained, people who make New Year’s resolutions tend to give up after just a few weeks.

“[Our immunity to change] starts saying, ‘Let’s not changing anything, let’s relax. Status quo is good,’” explained Shavurov, who worked extensively over the last decade on public sector reforms in Latin America, West Africa, and Central Asia.

The magic 8%

According to him, a classic case would be that of a person who decides to lose 20 kilos. He or she will cut back on calories, go to the gym regularly for a week or so but will eventually give up, for one reason or another. Many people call this “life getting in the way.” Other concerns suddenly become a bigger priority, and people end up sticking to the status quo. Statistics show that only 8% of people who set New Year’s resolutions actually accomplish them. What do the 8% know or do that the rest of the population doesn’t?             

In an interview, Center for Asia Leadership president and co-founder Samuel Kim outlined three dimensions of people’s immunity to change:

  • Change prevention system (thwarting, challenging aspiration)
  • Feeling system (managing anxiety)
  • Knowing system (organizing reality)

First, he said every person has to recognize that he or she has a change prevention system that stands in the way of an aspiration. It is a set of often unrecognized assumptions people have about themselves, the world, and others. The first step is to step back and acknowledge what is really hindering making a change.

In an interview,  Kim said it is often a fear of a loss of some sort that stops people from changing. “You’re afraid that if you stop doing it, you could lose your friends, [or] it could be your status, certain branding that you’ve established for yourself. There’s a sense of loss that gets in the way.”

Second, he said every person who wants to change has to understand his or her own feeling system. This has a lot to do with managing the anxiety that comes with trying to do something new. Change, especially if it’s a radical one, is highly emotional. There are deeply personal underpinnings to people’s behavior. Things are not as simple as they seem.

Citing a pretty common example during the workshop, Shavurov said an overweight person could have the underlying thinking that being offered food is a sign of love and affection. So when his favorite aunt makes his comfort food, mac ‘n’ cheese, to say no would be to reject her love,  undermining the close bonds of family and belongingness. Or for another person, it is the perception of being secretly judged by the sleek and fit people at the gym that keeps him or her from working out. A person who wants to change has to have the emotional honesty to see what’s really stopping them. Usually, it’s a deeply personal reason that goes beyond “not having enough time,” “lacking willpower,” or “going back to normal life.”

Lastly, Kim said a person who makes a successful change has to have a knowing system in place to help him or her organize reality. Once the hidden assumptions are tackled, he or she can focus on available options. According to Kim, it means identifying the actionable steps to moving closer towards the goal. Shavurov gave the example of addressing the feeling of anxiety about being judged at the gym by coming with a friend. Another way to address this feeling of feeling out of place is to strike up conversations with people while on the treadmill and eventually make new friends.

Ultimately, the development of the human race has depended on its ability to change and improve. This is true on a societal level as well as on a personal one. By getting to the real root of one’s resistance to change, everyone can achieve anything they set their sights on. As Shavurov pointed out, it’s not a question of willpower. Often, the missing element is self-awareness and emotional and psychological honesty.

By Nirva’ana Ella Delacruz