Whether you think you’re good at quantifying risks and rewards or not, there is a highly attentive and invisible geek living in your brain who loves tallying those figures. This tiny geek spends all their time calculating whether the costs of making a change are worth the rewards. For example, I thought it was a great idea to learn Italian while studying in Italy, but my internal geek (who looks a lot like the woman wearing horn-rimmed glasses from a Gary Larson “The Far Side” comic) did not! While my pronunciation was okay, it was mentally painful, awkward and exhausting to remember the words and rules to put a sentence together. The enthusiastic encouragement of my teacher, fellow students and the Italian people, who patiently listened as I struggled, was not enough to motivate me to keep up my efforts. In other words, the “switch cost” was too great.

While the goal of most learning programs is to facilitate some form of behavior change, switching from doing something one way to another requires effort, which usually means a decrease in performance — a switch cost. Even if the behavior change makes sense, turning learning into action and making the change will still be hard. It’s uncomfortable to learn a new process, skill or technology, taking longer to complete the task and making more mistakes. Like my attempt to learn Italian, the idea of it was exciting, but actually doing it was problematic, which is why people often prefer imagining taking action versus actually taking action, where the discomfort of doing becomes real.

Additionally, people tend to feel good when they reach a level of ease and mastery in any aspect of their lives, especially at work. Perhaps they’re recognized as an expert, so colleagues seek them out for advice. They see a link between their success and promotion, more money or other recognition, and that makes them feel great. Changing their behavior post-training means stopping the behavior that makes them feel positive and learning a whole new approach, resulting in a loss of their perceived status as an expert and becoming a beginner again.

While there may be multiple obstacles on the road to behavior change, understanding switch cost can help instructional designers create learning that is more likely to support behavior change.

Here are four practices to build into program design to overcome switch cost by activating the action centers in the brain more effectively:

1. Start by helping learners understand the “why” behind the desire for behavior change.

Why does this change matter? What happens if the change isn’t made? How could they benefit by making the change, even if it’s hard to do in the short term?

2. Explicitly show how the old way of doing something doesn’t work anymore or leads to less desirable results.

People revert to old ways because of habit (well-worn neural pathways), so clearly showing how old ways of working lead to unfavorable or unwanted outcomes will reduce a tendency to slide backward.

3. Reward practice, not perfection.

Use compassion and tell learners that making the change is hard and that you appreciate what they may be losing (mastery, efficiency, or doing a task in a certain way). Then, show learners that success in this situation is defined as learning something new—practicing—versus being successful in the old way. Set up times to check-in, rewarding those who made the effort (i.e., greatest number of attempts wins), even if those attempts were not successful. You can also practice with them, taking a task and working together to complete it using the new way, helping them move from the idea phase through the steps of taking action.

4. Talk about obstacles that got in the way of progress and celebrate those!

This may seem strange, but simply put, if they encountered an obstacle, that means they were attempting to make the change. No obstacles equals no switch cost, which equals no effort to change. In this case, emphasize that encountering obstacles and the resulting discomfort is a sign that they are on the right track, not doing something wrong.

Designing learning with these practices in mind gives your learners (and their internal geeks) greater confidence and reinforcement to keep making the effort to change.