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  • Writer's pictureJaap Bosman

Change is harder than you’d think

How did 2022 start for you? Perhaps you made some new year’s resolutions? Quit smoking, spend more time with your family, more exercise, just to name a few popular goals. Right now we have not even reached the end of January, and yet the majority of well-intended resolutions have already derailed. That is a bit disheartening, don’t you agree? Why is it so hard for us to change for the better?

The answer to that is in the power of routine. Humans are the most sophisticated and complex living organisms. Our brains require comparatively a huge amount of energy. Developing routines is evolutionary a clever way to save energy. If I repeat something, I do not have to invent it from scratch and will not waste brainpower. That explains that changing a routine is an active effort that requires energy. And it will keep requiring a conscious effort right up to the moment that a new routine has been established.

One could certainly argue that quitting smoking is a matter of stopping a physical addiction and that is precisely the complex chemical processes behind it that makes it so hard. Whilst this is true, the social aspect is commonly much harder to change. Even with adequate nicotine replacement most people give up and fall back in their old habit. Breaking with the routine is much harder than getting off the drug. Establishing new routines, which become the to-go-to standard mode is the hard part of changing any behavior.

What about willpower?

The will to change certainly helps, but in general it is not enough. Trust me, many people who are overweight feel bad about their body and genuinely want to get in better shape. It is not the lack of willpower that leads them to fail. Many will go through one diet after the next. Willpower is like a muscle. After using it for a prolonged period of time it will tire out and needs to be relaxed. That is the moment when they fall back and indulge on binge eating. At that point in time, they feel all is lost anyway, so why even try. They failed.

Why is all this relevant for me in my capacity as a lawyer, you might ask? As you may recall, my previous two articles focused on talent and the need for structural investment in talent development. Developing talent implies permanent training and learning new skills. This is where understanding of the mechanisms behind change become important. Lawyers can only grow and develop if they change the way they work and behave over time. No change, no development. No development equals regression, compared to others.

Most change projects miserably fail

Anyone who is a partner in a law firm works under immense pressure. There are demanding clients and complex matters and transactions that require undivided attention. On top of that are the requirements put by the firm. Partners have to bring in a certain amount of revenue each year, they have to educate and train young lawyers and participate in internal meetings. Meeting such heavy demands requires so much energy that it can only be done with some well-developed routines in place that have been further optimized over time. See the problem? Partners rely heavily on routines to survive and still we want them to change. No amount of willpower is going to pull that off. When push comes to shove, survival instinct will kick-in and the partner will fall back to the usual routine.

Easy does it

I have no intention of being pessimistic. On the contrary, in order to accomplish change we need to be realistic. Most programs that involve change are far too ambitious. That is why they ultimately fail. There are only three ways form people to permanently change:

1. At gunpoint or after trauma

2. In very small but consistent steps

3. Change of stage

The third one, change of stage, perhaps requires a bit of clarification. The short version is this: we all adopt certain roles in certain situations. Like actors in a play, we play a certain version of ourselves. We will be a different person in the office than at home among family. We might behave be slightly different visiting our parents. The bully at the office might be totally sociable when hanging-out with friends. It is much harder than you’d think to change one’s role in a certain setting. We are primed to act in a way our surrounding has learned to expect. That is why moving to another setting can open an opportunity for change. For the purpose of changing and developing the partners in the firm this is not a good tool as they will remain actors on the same stage.

Change through trauma or at gunpoint also typically is not a feasible method. In rare situations it might help. “Unless you get your act together fast, we will kick you out” No need to state that if change does not occur, you need to act, otherwise no-one will ever believe your threats anymore.

Realistically small manageable steps are the only way for change to succeed. That is why we are not in favor of grand, all-encompassing ambitious programs. Whilst they look great on paper and make for super exciting kick-off meetings, they will invariably fail in execution. The only realistic way for lawyers to change is in a long succession of small intricate steps. Replacing one routine with another and then the next, and so on.

If everything else fails.

If everything else fails, you can always turn to Xiao Zhu. Xiao (pictured above) is a Chinese entrepreneur who is a professional anti-procrastinator. It is his job to call, text and pester you, to make sure things are done. It seems best to consider this a method of last resort.


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