Why is it so difficult to change Just One Thing?

Why is it so difficult to change Just One Thing?

Have you ever noticed how tough it is to change even one thing in your life? No sooner have you taken the first few steps than something always intervenes to sabotage the effort. Every January 1st, millions of people resolve to change some element of their lives: To exercise, to lose weight, to follow a budget or stop drinking, etc. In the vast majority of cases, these efforts are usually short-lived and people return to their old patterns. Why is that?

John Donne[1] wrote, “No man is an island”, meaning that all people are connected and dependent on each other.  In the same way, no event, decision, action, or plan is an island. More than 100 years ago, Gestalt[2] psychologists proposed that nothing happens independently of its context. What we perceive in the foreground of any moment is a tool the mind uses to focus its attention on an immediate challenge. The Gestaltists called this Prägnanz, the illusion of experience as regular, orderly, symmetrical, and simple. It’s why we see the picture below as a dog and not just a collection of splotches. This may be effective when there’s an immediate danger, but much less so when the challenge is complex.


“I’m in a rut”, “Same old same old”, “The more things change the more they remain the same”. These all reflect a static view of life and events. Nothing could be further from the truth. Every single day, every single moment, and every single event is different from all previous and future events. The foreground and background are constantly shifting. The mind makes them appear constant in its search for simplicity and order.

Grounded Theory

Every day really is a new day. Every interaction will be different depending on changes on both sides. Focusing too much on detail can distract from grasping the meaning. Going into situations with preconceptions limits uncovering new opportunities. The research methodology of Grounded Theory[3] gets its power from approaching problems without hypotheses and building theories “from the ground up”.  Taking the time to discover changes in context promises a big payoff in success, efficiency, and cost.

The implications are huge: Strategic plans that map out and provide for monitoring the evolving landscape of a business are more likely to succeed. Salespeople who approach customers with an open and receptive mind are far likelier to uncover opportunities for their value proposition at that moment. Managers who take the time to know their subordinates personally will be better at engagement and retention.

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Harder and Atkins[4] say, “Employees value communication from their manager not just about their roles and responsibilities but also about what happens in their lives outside of work. Employees who feel as though their manager is invested in them as people are more likely to be engaged”.

Here’s the bottom line: It’s impossible to change Just One Thing without changing the context in which Just One Thing exists. It’s important to keep an eye both on the ball and on the field!


By Steve Courmanopoulos, PhD (Psych)

Dr. Courmanopoulos is the Senior Partner and CEO of Medius International Inc, a global consulting firm providing expertise in three areas: Intelligence, Strategy, and Organizational Development. Click here for more information on the firm’s activities in Company Culture, Psychological Selling, and Employee Engagement.


[1] Donne, John (1923). Donne’s Devotions. Cambridge University Press.

[2] Gestalt psychology: Retrieved October 31, 2016 from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gestalt_psychology

[3] Strauss, A. L., & Corbin, J. (1990). Basics of qualitative research: Grounded theory procedures and techniques. London: Sage.

[4] Harder J. and Adkins, A. (2015). What Great Managers Do to Engage Employees. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved October 31, 2016 at: https://hbr.org/2015/04/what-great-managers-do-to-engage-employees

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