Ben Asks: Why is it so difficult to change? Explaining the ‘Water Principle’.

You’re stuck in a rut, struggling to move forwards and you just don’t understand why? Well let me help you understand it better with a theory about water.


To make a change, we input energy to divert away from our current normal, to create a new normal. Some changes are immediate and significant, such as moving house — where we use a short sharp burst of intense energy for a sustainable period of time. 

Other changes though, are more incremental. You start with a project and you have a dedicated goal in mind, however that finish line may be way ahead in the future. It’s easy to start the change as the amount of energy required is lower than the level of excitement you may have. Gradually though, that constant continued effort over months and months without any perceivable results can end up being absolutely draining if not managed correctly. 

Most humans have experienced the vast valley of demotivation that so often comes with a long term project, and I’m sure we are all guilty of looking for the easy way out when faced with a dark and miserable climb. 

But with any long term project, the more you can ‘normalise’ the situation you are in, the more you can understand the ‘why’ and with this understanding comes a better chance of success.

Any seasoned marathon runner will tell you it’s going to hurt like hell at mile 18-20, therefore any beginner experiencing ‘the wall’ will understand it to be normal and it makes it easier for them to carry on.

Taking a more general goal of ‘Fitness’ – unless you’re shredding calories and limiting calorie intake unhealthily, you’ll not see the incremental changes that the increased exercise brings; until you try on an old pair of trousers that have been too snug for far too long.

In engineering, it’s quite common for inspiration to come from nature. Biomimicry is all around us —not least on our roads, where ‘Cat’s eyes’ reflect headlights to guide the route ahead. When we have problems in our lives, we can look to nature to provide a better understanding and this is why I want to talk about water. 


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There is no easy way to explain this theory without a small section of dry science. So please hang in there and I’ll see you on the other side. 

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Water, to change itself from a solid state, into a gaseous state, must first melt from ice into water and then evaporate from water into steam. 

You may remember from science class, we conduct an experiment where we take a lump of ice, heat in a pan with a bunsen burner, then measure the temperature over a given period of time. Typically that time limit is when the water is boiling like mad and the teacher gets a bit worried about over-eager kids wanting to stick their fingers in! 

The chart we drew up after the experiment would look something like this.

The temperature rises steadily, until the ice changes to water or the water changes to steam and in these transitions something strange happens.

During these transformation phases, the observed temperature on the chart shows only a flat, steady line. We can’t see that any change is happening from the outside. However, we know at an atomic level, energy is applied in the form of heat and the molecule’s natural vibration increases.

The inward heat energy is being converted into kinetic energy. 

And remember that the fundamental rule of science: energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only change forms. 

The water molecules continue to vibrate until finally they have enough energy to break free from their bonds and end up in a new, more fluid condition. Then, and only then, the observed temperature will increase again.

The same occurs when cooling. When we cool steam, to water and finally to ice, the temperature will also flatline in the transition phases. This is due to the molecules receiving less heat energy and forming restrictive bonds again.  

These plateaus of change are proportional with time and energy. Therefore if change is a constant, to decrease the time, we need to add or remove more energy. 

OK we made it. . . good job.

Considering our life progression and everything in our lives – projects, relationships, health, fitness, confidence etc. water is a handy analogy. 

When we change, and we want to move paths, from our current normal to a new normal, we need to input energy.

When we are in that transitional phase, we need to keep inputting energy — even if we see no results — until finally our bonds are broken with our old path, and we can move onto the next one.  

The energy we are inputting is not being wasted. It is being used somewhere. If we are not seeing an obvious result on the outside, it is likely the energy is being used on the inside.

When we fail to maintain consistency in long-term changes, our energy towards our mission reduces. Just like water, then we can slip back along the plateau and form bonds again to lower elements—AKA our original bad habits.


When times have been tough in my life, the one constant that has kept me motivated is the belief that the more energy I put into the system, the better the result.

I stumbled onto the ‘water principle’ idea when talking with a friend who was struggling to find his feet with his business. 

It was clear he was demotivated and a bit down in the dumps. It was only natural to try and think of a way to help his situation. We all say to our friends, “don’t give up” in times like these. However, without some context behind it, I felt it was a bit of an empty statement. Just like telling your mate who has split up with their partner, “It’ll get better soon”, you know that’s not the full story.. It’s going to be hell for 90 days as they ride the emotional rollercoaster of missing messages, bittersweet memories, tunes and smells that spark sadness—all the fun that comes with heartbreak.

I had watched a YouTube video on professional CrossFit athletes and was fascinated with the coaches explanation of ‘plateaus’. He described it as swimming under ice. At some point you won’t be able to get up for air. The only way to break through the ice is with technique. He would coach his athletes to actively stop chasing big weights, or top scores on the board (a habit formed from childhood) and focus only on the way they were moving.


The parallels between my friend, the athletes and the way water reacts just seem to fit together quite nicely. 

I started to think about all the times that I had found it hard and no matter how much energy I was putting in, nothing seemed like it was moving forwards.

Projects at work, becoming debt free, moving to a foreign country. All these projects which took so much energy and were completely demotivating in the heat of the battle. They all started to move when I had freed myself from bad habits, poor discipline or finally just accepted the situation I was in. 

It was only when I had used energy to break free from the bonds from the past, that I was set free for the future. 

“Don’t give up” with more background no longer seems as empty. 

We all know the expression ‘no pain, no gain’. If the only ‘pain’ you’re experiencing is the discomfort of not being able to visibly see results, perhaps you need to ask yourself how much you want the change?


But be careful. As I will discuss next week, if you are going to use your precious energy on change, it should be completed as efficiently as possible. The Plan, Do, Check, Action, method, can help you laser focus that energy to great success.  

Ben Stalsberg

New posts out fortnightly on Fridays!


Try to think of a time where you were struggling to change. What can you learn from that?


Heating Curve for Water

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conservation_of_energy


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