“Change is a process, not an event.” –Barbara Johnson
In a culture where advertising constantly promises us instant results, we’ve been indoctrinated to think that if something doesn’t change fast and change dramatically, it’s not going to change at all. This may be the reason we lose patience and become discouraged so quickly when changes we want to make don’t happen overnight. Not only do we have unrealistic expectations, but we overlook the reality that change in human behavior generally involves a process.
Simple, incremental changes are not very sexy, but if you look back on your life, the changes you made incrementally were far more likely to result in a tangible shift than those high-velocity leaps that didn’t stick for the long term.
Step-by-step change works better than the kind of sweeping “life renovations” we may try to make after a whirlwind weekend retreat.
Why Small Changes Are More Effective
Imagine you placed a very large order for something you really wanted. When it arrives, you find a thousand-pound pallet of boxes sitting in your driveway. No matter how much you want what is inside the boxes – would you try to move the entire pallet into your house in just one go? Obviously not. You’d take in one box at a time. Or as much as you could reasonably carry. In other words, you take in only what you know you can manage.
Making meaningful changes in our lives works the same way. When we identify what needs to change, we often start by asking ourselves: What isn’t working for me in my life? We tend to answer it with an entire area of life, like:
Where I live.
While there’s nothing wrong with wanting to restructure an entire area of your life, the truth is, you can’t take on everything at once. Click To Tweet
So, if your first answer to “What isn’t working?” is an entire area of your life, look more closely at the different “boxes” that comprise that part of your life. It may be that you are likely to change where you live or change your job at some point. But what are the simple changes you can make, right now, that will improve your quality of life in that area?
For example, maybe your work environment can be toxic at times. But let’s say that in addition to the challenges this toxicity presents, you tend to hold yourself to ridiculously high standards. In this case, one small improvement might be that you realize your job becomes more stressful when your perfectionism dictates how you deal with it. You realize that when you’re bent on doing the impossible, a moderately stressful job situation suddenly becomes untenable.
So, what small change could you make as the first “box” you carry toward making your work environment more peaceful for you? Is it setting priorities so you tackle the most important tasks first? Is it abiding by a set schedule of work hours, after which you go home and attend to the rest of your life? Maybe it’s having better boundaries and learning how to say, “No,” so you don’t add more to your plate unnecessarily.
Make your first small change, and then take a look at what else in your life either supports you in continuing to move toward your larger goal or prevents you from having the energy to do so.
Small Changes You Can Make Right Now – Even If You’re Not Sure Where to Start
If you’re not sure which small change to make first, focus in on one of the following three areas to free up the psychic space you need to make additional changes.
1. Assess your background stress.
If you’ve ever had a leaky faucet, that constant background drip becomes both an ongoing irritation that you try to ignore and a constant reminder that you need to do something about it—so you’re exerting energy on both fronts. Only once the faucet is fixed is it obvious how much that nonstop drip, drip, drip was contributing to physical tension and your overall level of stress.
Whether it’s an entire area of your life you’ve targeted for change, or you just want to feel more peace and ease on a daily basis, don’t underestimate the role that background stress plays in undermining your quality of life. While background stress from your immediate environment may not seem significant, it can really add up, increasing the stress you feel in general.
Ask yourself what contributes to your daily background stress. Identify the nagging little worries that drain you, the irritating problems you obsess over, or the long list of “shoulds” you never seem to implement. Maybe it’s the pile of unopened mail, or the mountain of laundry you never seem to get to. Or even the book you can’t put down, despite the fact that you’ll be really tired the following day.
Interestingly, the solution to relatively minor background stress is usually a simple change that takes far less energy to implement than the energy spent by not addressing it.
2. Make simple changes to address your bad habits.
After you’ve taken care of that running background “drip,” turn your attention to your unproductive habits. Again, it’s not about picking up the whole pallet at once. Instead, look for how you can start to break these habits down, one step at a time.
First, examine your coping mechanisms when you’ve had a hard day. Maybe you binge-watch television or have that extra glass of wine you know you ought to resist. Maybe you skip dinner because you’ve filled up on chips instead. You know a walk would really help reduce your tension and improve your mood, but that “Oh, the hell with it!” voice takes control instead.
Next, pick one habit. Just one! And address it with a healthy alternative. Maybe on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings you leave your walking shoes by the front door as a reminder when you come home from work.
As you implement these small changes successfully, move the bar higher and take the next small step. These simple changes raise your level of self-awareness. Over time, this awareness will help you trade your bad habit for a healthy one.
3. Remind yourself that the simplest changes often yield the biggest results.
I’ve learned from personal experience that my most long-standing issues are what separate me from the peaceful and fulfilling life I desire. They also bring up the most resistance, so I think of self-improvement like peeling off layers of an onion: just take one layer at a time.
The simple changes we make on one level are often necessary for us to successfully make bigger changes on a deeper level. If you feel certain that you need to change jobs, for example, how will taking the small steps I mentioned earlier in this article help you fulfill that goal?
Here’s the gold in peeling away each layer of stress: each change you make that reduces your reactive habits frees your energy for something else. Perhaps you’ll change your perception about the work you do, or a new way forward will start to present itself that you simply hadn’t seen before.
Even though the small first step you take today may not seem like a direct route to the larger change you want to see, reducing the influence of stress on your choices and behavior is a good first step to any change, no matter how big or small.
Take good care : )
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