Most of us have wellness and fitness improvement goals we would like to make in our lives but struggle to get going or to maintain them. 

I have studied wellness most of my life and I have also competed in triathlons for over 28 years.  Part of my dedication and consistency comes from understanding what motivates me and how to get over mindset hurdles.  Without significant efforts in rethinking how to overcome obstacles and keeping motivated I would have given up long ago.  Many of my coaching clients have had wellness or physical activity as part of what they wanted to work on.  Despite years of effort, some of them cannot seem to get going and struggle to stick with a consistent fitness program for long.  So, what is standing in their way?

One model I often use with clients who want to improve their fitness habits comes from Harvard researchers, Robert Kegan, PhD, and Lisa Laskow Lahey, EdD.  They seem to have finally cracked the code on developing a process that helps people overcome ingrained obstacles and successfully make “adaptive change.”  Once I have learned about this systematic method, I started using it with my clients who struggle to overcome big life obstacles. 

Adaptive change requires a shift in mindset, not just behavior. And as Kegan and Lahey explain in their book, Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Your-self and Your Organization (Harvard Business Press, 2009), this sort of change requires a certain amount of self-inquiry and self-exploration. Their systematic method for accomplishing that work, and for overcoming our inherent resistance to it, has now been successfully used by many organizations, from medical practices, to government agencies.

Removing the Immunity Guard to Your Success

Kegan and Lahey see our resistance to change as an immune system of sorts, and they note that our “immunity to change” has a positive purpose.  This immunity has served to guard us from the psychological trauma and danger that sudden changes can bring.  Unfortunately, this same system that is meant to keep us wary of negative and disruptive changes, is a double-edged sword that can also inadvertently stop us from making significant positive changes in our lives. The very idea of change can be enough to trigger our defense mechanisms, causing us to sabotage our best efforts almost before we have even started.

Because our immunity to change is so often deeply-rooted in unexamined beliefs, Kegan and Lahey have found that shifting our behaviors typically requires first instilling a more conscious and constructive set of beliefs. The foundation of their methodology for this work is a four-

column Immunity to Change Model, which guides people through a process of self-examination, helping them identify and adjust assumptions that may be holding them back. 

A current client of mine has tried for years to start an exercise program that would render results.  She had tested many approaches, always giving up too early.  She had all but given up attempting to start a new fitness plan, attributing this inability to her own laziness. We worked together on understanding her goals, current behaviors and worries related to change.  The most surprising part of this work was to uncover her Hidden Commitments.  She was rigidly attached to avoiding failure and being rejected.  One of her big assumptions was the idea that she would be rejected if less than perfect.  It became clear to her that a “belief upgrade” was needed.  She had one foot on the gas (her fitness goals) and one foot on the break (her old system of internalized truths). Mission impossible! One had to be released for the other to work.

Immunity to Change Process Steps

  1. Improvement Goals – choose a Wellness Goal with components that would make a big difference, one you genuinely want to achieve.  Write down your goal so it is clear to you what you are focusing on.  What is the single more powerful change you could make to improve your life and wellness?  Specify concrete behaviors that you believe are necessary to achieve your goal.  Frame these behaviors as positive statements (rather than in a negative light).  In my client’s case, her goal was to stick to a plan focused on moderate elements of physical fitness, improved sleep, and significant changes in creating a healthy diet.  The behaviors she identified were sticking to a regular schedule, making time for breaks throughout the day, increasing the amount of work delegated to her team, planning the meals with her husband, and finding group workouts that were fun.
  1. Behaviors that Go Against My Goal – what is the thing you do, or do not do, that gets in the way of achieving your goal?  What gets in your way the most?  This is a list of behaviors that you currently have.  Define your actions/behaviors here, not your feelings.  For my client, the behaviors she identified included creating drama around her workload while never creating a plan to delegate, not making time after work to incorporate her healthy new plans, eating large quantities of high carbohydrate foods when stressed, spending a lot of time thinking about the fact that she was not working out, but not actually starting.
  1. Hidden Competing Commitments – create a “Worry Box” that will hold your fears if you were to change your behaviors you listed at #2.  This starts to get at the meat of the matter.  Make sure you give yourself time to list out all your big worries (I call this filling your worry box).  My client found that she felt guilty for asking her spouse to help more with childcare.  She was extremely worried about giving up and how difficult it would be to reach the ideal state.  These fears supported her Hidden Commitments.

    Hidden Commitments are things you are committed to that address worries and fears.  What are you committed to not experiencing?  With your immune system protecting you from feared, undesirable outcomes, you will not achieve your goal or attain lasting change.  One of my client’s biggest hidden commitments was not to fail.  Her perfectionistic part of her personality was protecting her from feeling less than flawless (not immediately being at her goal level of fitness).

  1. Big Assumptions – these are the beliefs and internalized truths we hold about how the world works, how we work and how people respond to us.  Big assumptions support (or underlie) each hidden commitment.  These assumptions make each hidden commitment feel necessary.  Look for assumptions that anchor your hidden commitments (for example my client’s belief that not immediately achieving her end fitness goal would result in failure and rejection).  Notice how your assumptions define / drive / shape behaviors that undermine and slow you down from reaching your goal.  Do these assumptions still make sense to you?  Work with a trusted coach or accountability partner to gradually collect data, conduct safe experiments in your daily life to test out these assumptions.  Some of these beliefs may need an upgrade as often, they are old, unchecked internalized truths that no longer ring true to you.

The goal of collecting data and conducting experiments is not necessarily to prove your assumptions wrong, but put them to the test.  Some of them may in fact still be true for you.  You are gathering data.  Your experiment will allow you to better understand how accurate your assumptions really are.  You can then decide if the behaviors you have been engaging in protecting yourself from your imagined worse case scenarios are helpful, or if they are counterproductive.  

Retraining your psychological immune system requires time and willingness.  I suggest to my clients to dedicate at least 30 minutes a week, for several months, to practicing new habits.  For those who have tried many times to implement a habit of fitness and failed, having a coach helped them start up and maintain that momentum.  As you start to test and reveal limiting assumptions, you will feel your resistance to change decreasing.  As a result, you will feel more empowered to reach your goals, while experiencing not just temporary behavioral adjustments, but deep and sustainable change.

Jen Rich, your Executive Coach