Have you ever given up on a New Year's resolution? Abandoned a diet? Let your gym membership lapse? Gone back to the kind of relationship you swore you'd avoid? You're not alone. There seems to be a huge gulf between wanting to change and actually making changes stick. For a lot of people, the problem lies in misunderstanding how change happens. This means getting your head around the idea of an "emergent property".

An emergent property is something that arises from simpler components but is different from them. A sandstorm is simply wind and sand, but if you've ever been caught in one you'll know it's very different from walking along the beach on a blustery day. The elements combine in a way that produces something unique, which has properties that the individual components (sand and wind) don't have on their own. This is a simple example; more complex systems can have different and surprising emergent properties.

What does this have to do with change? Stop asking yourself what you want to change; start asking why you want to change. If you ask, "What change?" then you might say, "I want to lose weight," but when you ask, "Why change?" then you could have a whole range of answers: "I want to be healthier," "I want to feel more attractive," "I want to fit into those clothes." You might have one or two priorities, but it's unlikely that you'll have only one reason why you'd want to change. Wanting to change is an emergent property: it's the result of several ideas, wishes, or needs combining. This emergent desire to change is much more powerful than having a single target.

And just as wanting to change is emergent, so is actually changing. Change isn't a single, monolithic thing that you impose on your life: it arises from a whole combination of circumstances. It's not something that you do once and hope it sticks: it's a process that happens over time. Change is emergent and if you don't think of change as an emergent process, you're likely to run into problems.

If you forget that an emergent process can have many components but is different from each of them, you'll experience what's called the fallacy of division (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fallacy_of_division). You believe that the change is somehow contained in the components rather than arising from them. Suppose that you decide you'll get fit, but a couple of weeks later you're struggling to get to the gym. What do you do? You try to work out what the problem is. You tell yourself that you didn't put in enough effort, or that you didn't really want to change, or that other people weren't supportive. If you start looking for a single point of failure, you're forgetting that change emerges from the combination of effort and desire and support and dozens of other things.

If you focus on just one thing, you'll miss the point of emergence. Acting as though getting up to exercise each morning is just a case of setting your alarm an hour earlier reduces the complexity of change to a kind of on-off switch. It's entirely possible to create a new habit of early morning exercise, but it will happen when many factors come together. Ignoring this truth just leads to you turning off the alarm and falling back into bed muttering, "I want to, but it's too difficult." Instead of focusing on the difficulty, revisit all your reasons for change. Picture yourself feeling more attractive, or wearing clothes that are currently too tight, or walking up the stairs without getting out of breath. Remember, change is emergent. Lots of positive reasons in combination will have emergent properties. A focus on a single issue has none.

Don't forget that having the desire to change is itself an emergent process, and is one of the factors that create actual change. The fact that you want to change means you're already engaged with making a difference. The changes that you want to make aren't going to happen at some point in the future; the fact that you're thinking about them means that they've already started. As soon as you want to change, you've already begun.

Finally, thinking of change as an emergent process helps you to avoid the feeling of failure on days when it's hard work. So you didn't do any exercise today, or you've not looked at your language learning app for a week. That doesn't mean you've failed. Telling yourself you've failed means that you're thinking of change as a one-time event that hasn't happened. Change is an emergent property of many different ideas and feelings - including the worry that you've failed - so take that feeling of frustration or disappointment and use it to push on with the changes you're making. It's that mixture of ambition and frustration and desire that combines to form the new you.

Many of the problems around making changes to your life arise from thinking of change as a separate, one-off event at which you will either succeed or fail. When you think of change as an emergent process, something that arises out of a combination of many factors but is different from each of them, then you can stop blaming yourself or one of those individual components. Instead of finding one thing to blame, recognize that you're already part of an ongoing process that will lead to a better you.

Without change, something sleeps inside us and seldom awakens. The sleeper must awaken. Frank Herbert