Have you ever made a huge change, like losing a bunch of weight, only to find that you regress back to where you were in an equally impressive rebound? It’s easy to glamorize dramatic change, but the truth is that most effective change happens slowly, bit by bit, over time. Even changes that seem like big leaps were made possible by a series of preparatory steps. The reasons for this are two strong tendencies etched into the survival mechanisms of our brains. Knowing these tendencies can help you make the type of positive life changes that will be productive and really “stick.”
Our bodies and brains are programmed for the status quo. We are conditioned to return to a familiar reference point, especially if that reference point satisfies an emotional need. Unless something dramatic happens to push us to a new place, we’ll tend to fluctuate around a comfort zone. For example, we’ll stay in a familiar body-weight range, maintain the same relationships, and keep the same type of jobs. Our present reference point has a strong anchoring effect. We tend to identify with where we are now and measure everything according to that.
Secondly, from this reference point, we have a strong aversion to loss, while having a weaker attraction to gain. For example, when negotiating a contract, receiving “anything less than where you are at” is tremendously undesirable. You will fight tooth and nail not to lose something that you already have. On the other hand, you’ll have much less energy for gaining something you don’t already have. This tendency to “avoid loss at all costs” keeps things heavily weighted toward the status quo. Your present reference point, even if it isn’t all that desirable, is a known, you consider it “yours,” and you’re unlikely to give it up without having a very powerful reason.
So how does knowing “the weight of your present reference point” and your “strong aversion to loss” help you make changes? Well, it may help you be more conscious about what it really takes to change. Here are three things you can do to work with those conservative tendencies, so you can make the changes you desire.
1. You’ll be more successful in making a change if you can establish a new reference point for yourself. For example, if you want to lose weight, establish a goal-weight that feels doable and imagine yourself there. If you want a new job, define something that fits your interests, talents, and resources and imagine yourself doing it.
Establish a new point of reference and practice seeing yourself there. Become familiar with it. Read about it. Talk to others who’ve done it. And learn anything you need to know to get to where you want to go.
2. Make a plan of small, very-doable steps toward your new reference point. If you take huge leaps, you are likely to rebound if you don’t get the results you desire right away. If you have even a small setback, loss aversion will likely pull you all the way back to where you started. When you take small incremental steps, you generate “small wins” which positively reinforce what you are doing and slowly familiarize you with living toward your new reference point.
3. Know that there’s a strong “pull back” to the status quo, especially when you encounter rough spots. Understand that you will have challenges and mentally prepare for them ahead of time. In other words, have a back-up plan of action for facing potential setbacks. Then, when that situation comes up, you’ll be more ready for it. This way the inevitable bumps in the road are less likely to knock you back to ground zero—your previous reference point.
For example, if you plan to exercise on the way home from work, but a meeting keeps you late, you might have a “backup plan” of taking a walk after dinner or getting up early the next day to get your workout in.
Being aware of the twin tendencies to “maintain the status quo” and “avoid losses,” you can consciously take these three steps:
*Set a new reference point and imagine yourself there.
*Establish a plan of small steps to get there.
*Plan ahead for what to do when a setback happens.
With these three strategies in place, your plans for positive change have the best chance for success.