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.Today’s Big Idea—As a leader, it is essential to understand how to change your own habits, and how to help foster change in others. Science clearly reveals that some ways work better than others.

A friend and colleague of mine, an executive coach, recently asked me a deceptively simple question: “How do people change, and can you speed up the process?”

As a psychologist, I was embarrassed by my inability to provide a clear and concise answer.

This series represents my own deep dive into the research on this topic.

The job of every leader is change—to never stop growing themselves, to unlock potential in others, and to leave the world better than they found it.

To be blunt, if you aren’t changing things, you aren’t a leader.

“Not all change is progress, but without change, progress is not possible.” –John Maxwell

Leaders need to understand how people change for 2 vital reasons:

  1. First—they need to be able to change themselves and keep growing daily.
  2. Second—they must understand change in order to help others reach their potential.

The research is clear that there is no “one size fits all” approach to change. However, it’s also clear that people can, and do, make big and lasting changes in their lives. My approach in this series will be to provide you with some guidelines—many based in science—for ways that you can increase your odds of making changes in yourself, and influencing those around you.

The number one reason people don’t change

In his incredible book The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do in life and business—journalist Charles Duhigg explains why changing human behavior is so hard. If you haven’t checked out this book, it’s widely considered the most extensive book ever written on habit change.

Even Duhigg admits in the preface—there is no magic formula for changing habits. But don’t be discouraged, there are definitely things you can do to improve your odds of making successful changes in your life.

Here is the bottom line—about 40% of what we do every day is habit. That means we are on autopilot for nearly half of every day. Your brain tries to help you by creating routines to save energy, so you don’t have to use up precious mental energy  by brushing your teeth or putting your clothes on every morning.

At first new behaviors seem very difficult, then over time, the decision-making part of your brain begins to go to sleep and the part of the brain responsible for patterns and routines takes over.

Let me give you an example. I’m embarrassed to say it, but until recently, I didn’t realize toasters had a “cancel” button.

Not so long ago, my wife caught me frantically wrestling to unplug our toaster and dump it upside down after I had accidentally pressed it down a second time and was afraid I would burn my toast.

“Why don’t you just use the cancel button?”—she remarked innocently. I felt like a complete idiot after realizing there was a giant button that said “cancel” on it. 

In my defense, my expensive graduate education taught me about human behavior not toaster behavior!

It was right in front of my face and I literally could not see it. I’d been unplugging the toaster for 20 years. That’s how autopilot works. We just can’t see the thing we are doing that doesn’t make sense. We just do things the way we have always done them. It’s a blind spot.

This simple experience taught me a profound lesson. Much of what we do in life is outside of our awareness. We do what we have always done. We see what we have always seen. Our brain wants to save energy by sticking with the routine, sticking with what we already know.

Anything from how we brush our teeth or exercise, to spiritual or political views. We might go decades or even a lifetime without changing how we see and do things. 

Psychology research on perception confirms this too. If you really want to bend your brain, take a look at some of these famous perceptual illusions. They usually contain two images, but typically people only see one until the other is pointed out to them. So whose right?

Here is one if you are curious. What do you see?

Do you see a young woman or old?

Big reason #2: Your brains primary function is to keep you alive

The brain is also designed to keep you alive and avoid threats in your environment. But as many neuroscientists have pointed out, your brain cannot tell the difference between a physical and an emotional threat. It’s just processing information about fear.

This is why people fear public speaking more than they fear drowning—because public speaking literally feels like dying for most people’s brains!

It also means that you will often pick situations in life that are familiar to you—safe—or comfortable. You will stick to what you already know. This might keep you safe, but it won’t help you play offense with your life, reach your potential, or make the changes are seeking.

Numerous psychological studies support the idea that growth (i.e. change) only occurs outside your comfort zone.

But you need a new message for yourself that says—“this discomfort and momentary pain that I feel right now is the only thing that will get me change and get the life I want. It’s actually a good thing.”

Have a plan

When you want to make changes in your life (your habits)—Duhigg says—its critically important that you have a plan. Without a new plan, you are extremely likely to revert back to the way you have always done things, especially when you are under stress.

In our culture, most people are so busy that they live in a mild state of fight or flight most of the time. When your brain is in this state, you lack willpower and creativity, the very tools you need to create changes in your life.

Organizational psychologist and author Benjamin Hardy says that we must have regular ways to slow down, rest, and recover—because these states generate our best thinking about how we really want to change our lives. It helps us get off autopilot.

When we live on autopilot, it’s easy to arrive at places we didn’t want to go. Years or decades can slip by. If you want to avoid walking through your life half asleep, you need regular ways to step out of your routines to reflect on your values, your life purpose, and changes you might need to make.

Where are you on autopilot in your life?

“Everyone ends up somewhere in life. You can end up somewhere on purpose.” –Andy Stanley

Turn information into action

  1. Recognize that nearly half of what you do in your life is on autopilot.
  2. Create regular ways to disengage from activity—rest, recover, and reflect. Make creative plans for your life when you are most recharged.
  3. Have a written plan to remind you where you want to go.
  4. Know that you will return to old habits under stress.
  5. Embrace the fact that growth is always uncomfortable. Tell yourself this is

Have a great weekend!


*If you have enjoyed Parker’s blog, check out The Next Peak Podcast that Parker co-hosts. We interview successful leaders and discuss research-based principles that help people win in the workplace without compromising the things that matter most—relationships, a life of purpose, and health.

Suggested resources:

  1. The Power of Habit—Charles Duhigg
  2. Visioneering—Andy Stanley



Dr. Parker Houston

Parker Houston

Dr. Parker Houston is a licensed clinical psychologist and board-certified in organizational psychology. He is also certified in personal and executive coaching. Parker's personal mission is to share science-based principles of psychology and timeless spiritual practices, to help people improve the way they lead themselves, their families, and their organizations. *Opinions expressed are the author's own.
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