Both our minds and brains automatically resist change. Since the brain has a mind of its own, we need to consider eight crucial principles of how our brains work. The mechanisms are complex, but the principles are so simple they’re almost elusive.

1. Change Generates Discomfort

At a physiological level, change produces pain. One reason has to do with how and where the brain processes new ideas. Routine activity without the introduction of anything new requires little attention or energy. The brain circuits of these longstanding habits reside in the basal ganglia. You take the same route to work each day, so you don’t have to think about it and you can listen to audio books.

When these habits are confronted and forced to change, the automatic pilot in the basal ganglia gets disrupted, creating discomfort. The prefrontal cortex has to get busy with more energy and attention to process this thinking. It’s work to change. The natural inclination is to resist the stress of change and to preserve the default habit.

2. Change Creates Dissonance

The brain has an innate capacity to detect what neuroscientists call “errors”: the differences between expectation and perceived actuality. Remember the experience of absentmindedly going to the refrigerator and getting a drink of milk, only to abruptly discover when you took a sip that it was orange juice? When this happens, neural firings disrupt expected flow and use brain energy.

This error detection signal that something is “wrong” when routine behavior changes means that we have to take this coupling into account when guiding and strategizing about change. That something doesn’t feel quite right or comfortable in the beginning is not an indication to stop. You have to leave your comfort zone to change.

3. The Brain Is a Prediction Machine

Anything that recurs two times in a row, the brain predicts a repetition the third time. A stock goes up two quarters in a row; the brain predicts a third will follow. It’s the basis of jokes: listing two things and then surprising with a non-sequitur for the third.

Well-grooved circuits become default behavior patterns. We need to be sure we predict—envision—the right things.

4. Behavioral Reinforcements Can Backfire

Clinical research demonstrates that some incentives, as well as threats to motivate change, don’t work for the long term. For example, typical behavioral incentives and threats in the workplace (such as to recognize punctuality and reprimand for lateness) usually backfire. Studies show two things:

1) Threats work short-term, but draw attention away from work and back to the problem that created the behavior.

2) Recognition for someone being on time actually raises anxiety and reinforces the neural patterns connected with lateness.

We assume people will receive information about change and use it to better themselves. Not so, says the brain. In fact, being told what to do results in an innate opposition.

5. Motivation Is Not Essential

Someone does not have to be motivated to begin doing something. An action can generate its own motivation. Many of the professional athletes I’ve worked with get up in the morning and go to the gym, but they aren’t motivated to do so. They just do it. Sometime during the course of the workout, perhaps late into it, they become motivated. Or they may just do the workout because they know that it’s the thing to do in order to do what’s next. Motivation isn’t essential—but a plan and sticking to it are.

6. Emotions Change Brain Functioning

Here’s where we can integrate research from two pristine fields: neuroscience and poker. Poker experts indicate that the difference between winning and losing is often the ability to stay off “tilt.” “Tilt” is the emotional reaction to winning big or losing big. The emotion from winning big or losing big creates an altered state of mind, which then carries over to the next hand. When someone is in an emotional state, they’re marooned in their right brain—the feeling, intuitive brain. The emotional brain hijacks the intellectual, logical brain and holds it hostage. When this happens, take a time out to restore right- and left-brain balance. Do a brief relaxation exercise.

7. Stimulation and Performance

Stimulation enhances memory and learning. The things that excite us and provide a little bit of short-term stress also enhance learning. The time window on this phenomenon is about two hours.

For longer periods of time, especially four hours or more, things go the other direction. Learning capacity declines. This means that with sustained stress, people make bad, emotionally charged decisions. The most important success strategy for many of the leaders I’ve worked with is regulation of states of mind and management of emotion.

8. Closure to Novelty

Studies show that even highly accomplished people close themselves off to novelty as they get older. The major factor is not their age but how long they have been doing a particular thing, such as how long they have been in a particular business. People who stay in one place and one position get most entrenched. Those who have changed positions or careers often adapt to change more readily. They reset their clocks. This means that the imminence and prestige of someone highly accomplished in one area tends to add to the resistance of change.

Perhaps the hardest of all is to recognize that although something is right, change must always be considered.

Part II will apply these eight principles and address what to do.

DAVID KRUEGER, M.D. is an Executive Mentor Coach.
He is CEO of MentorPath, an executive coaching firm tailored
to the needs of executives and professionals. Dr. Krueger is author of
15 books on wellness success, money, and mind-body integration.
His Wellness Teleseminar can be accessed