Mastering Behavioral Change: Overcoming 7 Inner Obstacles

By Maria Luisa Engels

Maria Luisa is neuroscience based corporate consultant, trainer and coach and speaker. She focuses on leadership, psychological safety and inclusion, resilience, change and creative teambuilding. She is also a visual thinker and author. To her clients count global companies in automotive, health care or IT industries.

Mastering Behavioral Change

Behavioral change is hard, and it can be easy to get stuck in a cycle of trying and failing. Let’s say you want to start running regularly. You may start off strong, going for a run every day for a week or two. But then, life gets busy, you have a few late nights at work, and suddenly it’s been a week since you went for a run. Katy Milkman, a behavioral scientist and professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, draws on research from psychology, economics, and neuroscience to present a comprehensive framework for achieving personal change. She talks about three key factors that influence behavior change: motivation, ability, and opportunity. In her book “How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be,” she identifies 7 inner obstacles:

Overcoming the 7 Inner Obstacles to behavioral change

1. Not Getting Started

The first obstacle is the difficulty of initiating a behavior change. Often, we encounter fear of failure or uncertainty about where to begin. To overcome this obstacle, start with small, manageable steps. For example, if you want to start running regularly, begin by committing to a short run around your neighborhood every other day. Gradually increase the distance and frequency as your confidence grows. Here is an example: A friend of mine, who always wanted to learn spanish but hesitated to start because he felt overwhelmed by the task. To overcome this obstacle, he started with just 15 minutes of language practice each day using language learning apps. As he built his confidence and saw progress, he increased her study time, and soon enough, he was conversing in her target language with ease. Today we can have a coversation in my mothertongue which is spanish.

2. Procrastination

Similar to the first obstacle, procrastination is the tendency to delay taking action. It can be caused by a lack of motivation, fear of failure, or a preference for short-term rewards over long-term benefits. To combat procrastination, set specific deadlines and hold yourself accountable. Create a schedule that includes dedicated time for your desired behavior change, and reward yourself for staying on track. Example: John had been putting off decluttering his home for months, always finding excuses to avoid the task. To overcome procrastination, John set a goal to declutter one room each week. He enlisted a friend to check in on his progress and offered to treat himself to a fun outing every time he completed a room. By breaking the task into manageable chunks and rewarding himself, John successfully tackled the clutter in no time.

3. Distance Bias

This obstacle refers to the difficulty of connecting our current actions with future outcomes. For instance, you might struggle to see the benefits of saving money or investing in education, as the impact might not be immediate. In such cases, visualize the long-term rewards and remind yourself of the positive impact your actions will have on your future self. Example: Lisa wanted to start investing for her retirement, but she found it challenging to commit to setting aside money when she couldn’t see the immediate impact on her daily life. To overcome the distance bias, Lisa used a retirement calculator to estimate how much she would have saved by retirement age if she started investing now. Seeing the potential growth of her savings motivated her to start investing regularly.

4. Forgetting

Maintaining new habits or behaviors over time can be challenging due to a lack of reminders, a busy schedule, or competing priorities. To prevent forgetfulness, use tools like calendars, apps, or sticky notes to prompt and reinforce the desired behavior. Consider setting alarms or enlisting the support of a friend or family member to help you stay on track. Example: I wanted to incorporate mindfulness meditation into my daily routine but often forgot to do it amidst his busy schedule. To combat forgetting, I set a reminder on my phone for the same time every morning. Additionally, I placed a meditation cushion in a visible spot in his room to serve as a visual cue. With these reminders, It was much easier for me to successfully established a consistent meditation practice.

5. Laziness

Laziness, or the temptation to prioritize leisure activities over productive ones, can derail behavior change efforts. Overcome this obstacle by identifying the reasons behind your lack of motivation. Find ways to make the desired behavioral change more enjoyable or rewarding. For example, if you’re trying to eat healthier, experiment with new recipes or join a cooking class to make the process more fun. Example: Emily wanted to lead a more active lifestyle, but she found exercise routines tedious and uninspiring. To overcome laziness, Emily decided to try various activities until she found one she genuinely enjoyed. She explored dancing, hiking, and group fitness classes until she discovered that dancing brought her the most joy. Now, Emily looks forward to her dance sessions, making exercise a fun and integral part of her life.

6. Lack of Confidence

Fear of failure and self-doubt can be significant barriers to attempting new behaviors or pursuing goals. To boost your confidence, focus on your strengths and past successes. Remind yourself of challenges you’ve overcome in the past, and celebrate small victories along your journey to reinforce your belief in yourself. Example: Alex wanted to take on a leadership role at work, but he doubted whether he had the necessary skills and qualities. To build his confidence, Alex listed his previous achievements and positive feedback from colleagues. He attended leadership workshops and sought mentorship from experienced leaders. With increased self-assurance, Alex took on the leadership role and excelled in his new position.

7. Conformity

The pressure to conform to social norms or others’ expectations can hinder behavior changes that may be viewed as unconventional or outside the norm. Remember that your journey of change is unique to you, and it’s essential to stay true to your goals and aspirations. Surround yourself with supportive individuals who encourage your growth and understand your motivations. Example: Mike wanted to pursue a career in the arts, but his family and friends insisted he follow a more conventional career path. Despite the pressure to conform, Mike chose to stay true to his passion for the arts. He sought guidance from mentors and joined local art communities where he felt supported. Over time, Mike’s dedication and talent earned recognition, and he became a successful artist, proving that following his heart was the right choice. At the end of the day, the ability to change our behavior and transform our lives is within our grasp – but it requires a willingness to confront our inner demons, experiment with new approaches, and persist through setbacks.

Actionable steps to overcome these inner obstacles and make lasting behavioral  changes:

1. Set Clear Goals: Define specific and achievable goals for behavior change. Break them down into smaller, manageable steps to create a clear roadmap. 2. Create a Support System: Surround yourself with supportive individuals who encourage and inspire you to stay on track. 3. Use Visual Cues: Use reminders, notes, or visual cues to prompt and reinforce the desired behavior. 4. Celebrate Progress: Acknowledge and celebrate small victories along the way to boost motivation and confidence. 5. Embrace Failure: View setbacks as learning opportunities, not reasons to give up. Failure is a natural part of the growth process. 6. Seek Help: Don’t hesitate to seek guidance from mentors, experts, or professionals who can offer valuable insights and support. 7. Practice Self-Compassion: Be kind to yourself throughout the journey. Remember that change takes time, and it’s okay to have moments of difficulty. 8. Stay Persistent: Consistency and persistence are essential for behavior change. Keep pushing forward even when faced with challenges.

See John’s example: After experiencing several setbacks and struggling with procrastination, John decided to implement some of these strategies. He set a clear goal to exercise regularly, starting with short walks each day. John enlisted his best friend as an exercise buddy, and together they encouraged each other on their fitness journey. He placed a visible calendar on his refrigerator, tracking his daily walks and rewarding himself with small treats for consistency. Whenever John felt demotivated, he looked back at his progress and reminded himself of the positive impact exercise had on his well-being. As a result of his determination and support system, John successfully incorporated regular exercise into his lifestyle and reaped the benefits of improved health and vitality.

To summarize behavioral change is a challenging but achievable endeavor that requires understanding and overcoming inner obstacles. By acknowledging and addressing factors like procrastination, lack of confidence, and conformity, we can pave the way for lasting transformation. So, the next time you find yourself stuck in the cycle of trying and failing, remember that the power to change lies within you. Embrace the challenges, learn from setbacks, and take small steps towards the transformation you desire. With the right strategies and mindset, you can break free from the barriers that hold you back and embark on a journey of growth and fulfillment.

References: Milkman, K. (2022). How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be. Vermilion.

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