Changing human behavior is messy business.

How many times have we made resolutions to do something differently in the New Year, only to find by mid-January, it is back to business as usual?

The human brain is wired for efficiency. This organ, although only 2% of our body weight, uses about 20% of our caloric intake per day for processing, and during change, that number increases dramatically. Doing something new is an actual strain on our brain. It is sad to think that millions of dollars are spent every year in organizations for elaborate change management strategies, only to FAIL to meet intended outcomes.

Changing human behavior takes disciplined thought, disciplined action and emotional intelligence (self-awareness) to re-wire the brain until it feels comfortable and routine. Change management theory says that during change, it takes the human brain active memory prompts (reminders through job aids, communications, and training) up to 7 different times of the new way in order to anchor the change. Humans are not slow learners, but they are FAST forgetters.

Neuroscientists observed that neurons that FIRE together (our experienced learning), WIRE together (create behavioral patterns, almost impossible to separate). The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results. The inner dialogue when we “fall off the wagon” is not “Why did I do this?” it is “Why did I do this, AGAIN?”

Tom Rath & Jim Harter of Gallup suggest in the book Well-Being that sustained human change occurs within the context of social networks. Meaning, that humans who try to change a wired behavioral pattern all by themselves are statistically apt to fail miserably (my words, not theirs).

These Gallup authors cited experimental research that claimed in order to sustain change, the person, organization or community needs to be “locked in” and “held accountable” through societal pressure/support/ and change navigation processes.

For example, when you decide on January 1st to go on a weight loss program, you will only have a 24% chance of maintaining the fat you lose after 10 months. However, if you join a group that is also focused on weight loss, your chances increase dramatically to a 66% success rate. Being a part of a tribe with the same goal as you is key to lasting success. And we are not talking about enlisting your spouse in this change management program. As soon as he/she brings home that box of donuts, you are done-for!!

It takes a GROUP of people to create sustained actions, reminding you over and over again to rewire your fused-neuron-patterns.

How do you use a tribe (group) to create lasting change?

Pick Your Tribe Wisely

There was a radio show host who suggested that we would never be more than 10% richer or poorer than the people we hang out with.

This statement follows the cautionary tale of not focusing your energy to “keep up with the Jones’.” We behave like those in context of our social networks (neighbors, communities, and organizations). We are 15% more likely to be happy, if our social network is happy. If your friends are obese, you are 57% likely to be obese. If your spouse smokes, you are 37% more likely to smoke.

Years ago, I had a goal to get out of consumer debt. I brought a book by Dave Ramsey and began to get serious about having a completely different relationship with money and my spending of future income. A year later, and reading the book three times, I was still $26,000 in debt. I did not make much headway.

It was not until I joined the Dave Ramsey Financial Peace groups that I began to really change my spending patterns and get traction. Every week, I had to hang out with other people who thought “debt was dumb” and when I wanted to go into my favorite store without a plan, I remembered my Debt-Free Money Tribe that I was going to have to face on Thursday night. I did not want to be the loser of the group. Social shame is such a great motivator for change. I stayed close to those groups for over 3 years just to be sure I would never debt again. That was over 7 years ago and I am still debt-free!!

Set Up Tracking/Default Devices With Your Tribe

Imagine going to a football game and there was no scoreboard. All you would see is a bunch of men throwing a ball back and forth trying to make touchdowns. How fun would that be? Game theory is such a powerful motivator for human change – our human nature is to WIN.

When I was attending my “Debt is Dumb” support group, I was encouraged to post my debt as a list, smallest to highest, on my refrigerator to remind myself of my financial goals. When one debt item on the list was paid off, I would cross if off and move to the next item on my list.


I was so motivated to attack my list, I really forgot that I was changing my behavior when I was not grabbing the kids to dine out, or following what was on my list at Target, or practicing emotional maturity around money (72% of Americans do not have a will!!)

Setting up tracking and default systems can work in any area you are trying to change. I was coaching a woman who would only grocery shop around the perimeter of the store – avoiding the shelved-processed foods in the isles in order to stay on her food plan, and another woman who would put her cell phone in her trunk every time she drove her car. This was to prevent her from being distracted.

Another woman would set her phone timer on her first-dates only giving her 1-hour so she would be able to pace the date as she was learning how to slow down relationships.

The key to these defaults and metrics is that you let your tribe know ahead of time what you commit to – so that when you hit the snooze button on the old behavior – you will have to report these behavior patterns to someone other than your dog, who will wag his tail no matter how you behave.

Your tribe helps you stay accountable to your metrics and the default practice uses game theory to keep you motivated.

Follow the 20-Mile March

This has been the single most powerful form of personal change I have adopted in my life. The idea of the 20-mile march comes from my favorite author and researcher, Jim Collins.

True change, deep change, sustained change does not happen overnight.

There is hard-change (a new system at work gets put in the old one is turned off, you have no choice) and soft-change (behavior change, quit smoking, eat less, collaborate more at work, stop spending money you don’t actually have in your bank account, etc.)

Soft change takes a slow and steady approach to brain re-wiring every single day with consistency. The 20-mile march is a study of human performance efficiency. If a team were to walk across the United States, and onlymarch 20-miles every single day, rain or shine, they will make it to their destination.  If a team who marched 50 miles one day; 10 miles the next day, stopped for a day because of rain, and the next day, tried to make up for lost time with 80 miles – they would not make it across the country. Their performance energy would “fizzle out.”

The brain needs repetition and structure to WIRE/REWIRE again and again and again and again.

SUSTAINED, human effectiveness does not happen in a single binge cycle. Slow and steady wins the race. The tribe you choose helps you with this slow and steady approach often reminding you to keep the “eye on the prize.” It look me over 18 months to get out of consumer debt. There was no magic bullet, prince charming, or debit consolidation program that was going to change the core behavior of me spending future income. I had to interact with my finances every single day, for at least 15 minutes, with disciplined action.

Incidently, I spent one summer interviewing 7-figured entrepreneurs and every single one of them said it took them 6-10 years for their business to really take off. There is no such thing as a free lunch or an overnight success.

Practice Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence is the ability to notice and name what is happening to you while it is happening and then integrating your thoughts, feelings, wants and actions for better decision making. It is the self-awareness you practice before you take positive or negative actions. It is the cognitive process that gives you choice.

During change it is easy to lose focus, make mistakes, or practice other self-defeating behaviors.

When I “20-mile marched” my money, I noticed I was self-regulating by watching more television than usual. I did not trust myself to go out into the world as I was learning how to not impulse buy; binge watching TV, and surfing the internet became my coping strategy with the uncomfortable feelings of changing my brain wiring.

Practicing emotional intelligence meant that I was self-aware of what I was doing, enough so, that I could stop myself from watching 12 episodes of Grey’s Anatomy and instead raise my children, pay the bills, do the laundry, water the plants, feed the dogs, or clean out the garage. By practicing emotional intelligence, noticing and naming what I was feeling, I was able to choose more productive actions that helped me be more present to others, live in the middle of my life and ultimately, meet my financial goals.

With this grounded self-awareness, I was able to be available to others in my debt-free tribe as my peers were trying not to spend money on things they did not need with money they did not have, to impress people they did not know.

Practicing emotional intelligence created physiological safety within myself so that I could help others change – which anchored more change accountability because members of my tribe were asking for my help. It is the emotionally grounded tribe members supporting the emotionally shaky tribe members that are able to “stay changed.” We see this same human change model used in 12-step groups like Alcoholics Anonymous where one person with more sobriety helps another with less sobriety in order to keep from drinking.

Change is messy. Human behavior change is disorganized, untidy and sometimes chaotic, frustrating and liberating. By following some of these suggestions and using a group of other change-hungry humans to keep you on track – you will be amazed at how much easier it is to achieve your goals as you powerfully step into your future!!