When managing behavior change is like pushing water

Paul Duffy
3 min readMar 11, 2021
Photo by Hernan Pauccara from Pexels

I subscribe to the notion that if a change is so good, then why the hell haven’t I already embraced it? Commonly I just need to get out of my own way.

When I’m managing myself through a change — a new exercise regime, wearing a face mask, living in a new city — I look at all the obstacles in my way, and work out how to lower them or, if possible, eliminate them entirely.

Be water, my friend.” ~ Bruce Lee

When I suffer the energy shift of change (because that’s how it can feel sometimes) I imagine myself as water, churning, boiling even, resisting unwanted transportation.

We can’t push water (unless we’ve frozen the life out of it), so there are two options, carry it, or let the water do the work for you.

Carrying anything is exhausting, and a sloshing barrel of water is even more sapping, so how do we let the water do the work for us?

Going back to my first comment — if a change is so good why am I not already there — all I need to do is remove the obstacles. I carve a furrow in the earth down the slope to the better place, and then break the dam holding back the water, letting it run along the groove I’ve ploughed. I stopped trying to push the water and instead focused my efforts on creating the conditions to facilitate its move to a new home.

This is a somewhat simplistic analogy, and it only considers the path from the old way to the new; it doesn’t address the biggest issue, ourselves.

The psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, used a three part analogy to covey how behavior change happens: the rider, the elephant and the path. The rider represents our rational selves — just show the rider the way and then they know where to go. The elephant represents our emotional selves, providing the impetus to move — but the elephant requires motivation; it’s big and can easily derail our plans. The path represents the journey from the old world to the new — a shorter path, free from obstruction, makes change easier and faster.

The relationship between our rational selves and our emotional selves can be turbulent. Many of us have had the experience of finding it easy to give relationship advice to others, when we have less personal investment, but…

Paul Duffy

An ocean loving, tea drinking nomad. Curiosity can elevate us above our wiring.