“Change is a process, not an event.” –Barbara Johnson
In a culture where advertising constantly promises us instant results, we 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 become discouraged when changes don’t happen overnight. Not only do we have unrealistic expectations, but we overlook the reality that change in human behavior is a process.
Simple, incremental changes are not very sexy. But if you look back on your life, the changes you made incrementally probably better resulted in a tangible shift. And those high-velocity leaps probably didn’t stick for the long term. This is because 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 place an order for something you really want. 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 only what you know you can manage.
Making meaningful changes in our lives works the same way. However, when we identify what needs to change, we often start with an entire area of life, like:
Where I live.
If your answer to “What isn’t working?” is an entire area of your life, look more closely at the different “boxes” that comprise it. You may eventually change your job or where you live. 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 is toxic at times. But let’s say that in addition to the challenges this toxicity presents, you hold yourself to ridiculously high standards. In fact, your job becomes much more stressful when your perfectionism dictates how you deal with it.
So, what small change could you make (as the first “box” you carry) toward making your work environment more peaceful for you? 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 learning how to say, “No,” so you don’t add more to your plate unnecessarily.
Make your first small change. Then, take a look at what else in your life either supports you or saps energy needed to move toward your goal.
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. These areas will help 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 an ongoing irritation. Even as you try to ignore it, you’re constantly reminded 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.
Don’t underestimate the role that background stress plays in undermining your quality of life. Background stress from your immediate environment may not seem significant. But it can really add up, increasing the stress you feel in general.
To feel more peace and ease on a daily basis, start by paying attention to your background stress. Identify the worries that drain you, the problems you obsess over, the long list of “shoulds” you never seem to implement. Maybe it’s the pile of unopened mail, or the mountain of laundry you keep rolling your eyes at. 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 just a simple change that takes far less energy to implement than the energy spent trying to ignore the issue.
2. 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 three days a week, 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 an outer level are often necessary for us to make bigger changes on a deeper level. If you feel certain that you need to change jobs, for example, will taking the small steps I mentioned earlier in this article help you fulfill that goal?
As you peel away each layer of stress, notice how this reduces your reactive habits and frees your energy for something else. Perhaps you’ll change your perception about the work you do, or a new way forward that you hadn’t seen before will start to present itself.
The small first step you take today may not seem like a direct route to the larger change you want to see. But 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 : )