Isn’t it that when life doesn’t meet our expectations, it’s often tempting to think of dramatic changes?
We start fantasizing about quitting our jobs and going to a silent retreat in Bali. Or we think about what it might be like to leave our partners and rebuild our identities in a faraway place.
However, these massive changes then seem so daunting that we end up doing nothing and remain in our unhappy state.
And in those cases where we follow the impulse to turn our world upside down, we often find that the reality of our new situation doesn’t match our expectations and that our problems aren’t at all solved.
Small steps lead to lasting transformation, not a dramatic change
I think that we often make the mistake of trying to change our entire life in one fell swoop, which often inevitably leads to disappointment. Why? Because it’s not dramatic changes that can dramatically change your life; it’s a set of small steps that lead to lasting transformation.
Like nature that prefers evolution, not revolution, single-celled organisms slowly transform and adapt, eventually creating complex plants and animals. Continents push across oceans and give shape to our world. So it’s with our own lives.
Change is a process, not an event. Rather than breaking with our past with a single decision, it is often more effective to make small, subtle changes that steer us toward our values. This insight is the basis of the principle of small changes.
Take small steps with your values in mind
What are your main priorities right now? Being a wife, being a father, being a student, starting a business, traveling?
Maybe working on your side business is more important than going to the gym. Are you okay with the sacrifices that entail?
Maybe getting back in shape is more of a priority than maintaining personal relationships. Are you okay with the trade-offs that come with that?
Maybe watching that Netflix program is more important than visiting your parents. Are you okay with the compromises that come with that?
Take some time to think about your values and write them down. Even better if you rank them in order of importance (but know that it’s okay if your priorities change).
Let go of control
When we try to make significant changes, we often tell ourselves that we just need more willpower, discipline, and motivation.
And time and time again, these things fail us. So instead of trying to control these things – things that are often beyond our control – how about spending time and energy on actionable steps that you have complete control over?
Thinking small has real advantages. The cost of failure is comparatively low. When we realize we’ve got little to lose, we feel less pressure and more confidence. And the focus on modest, achievable goals provides tangible markers on the road to success.
Make a list of the things you want to change in your life and check off each item individually as it’s done.
Tell yourself: “It’s a work in progress, and I’m improving every day.”
How to apply change to your everyday habits
Here are three effective tactics you can use to make tiny tweaks that add up to significant change:
- Change your environment so that when you are hungry, tired, stressed or in a hurry, you make the choice that best fits your values. For example, if you’re trying to shed a few pounds, stocking your shelves with fresh fruit instead of cookies will help you succeed. Now you have just one midnight snack choice you won’t regret in the morning.
- Add a new behavior to an existing habit. Continuing with the weight loss example, this might mean turning your routine walk with your dog into a routine jog or doing some jumping jacks when you watch the evening news.
- Anticipate obstacles and prepare for them with “if-then” strategies. For example, when my partner goes to get a donut, I treat myself to the juicy pear I already have stored in the break room fridge. Likewise, when I’m tempted to sleep through my morning workout, I remind myself how much better I’ll feel when I do.
Key take away
If you want to change your life, instead of opting for a dramatic change, take it one step at a time. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and you won’t be able to turn your life around in a day, a week, or a month either.
Any sea captain will tell you that if you steer a ship just a few degrees, you completely alter its trajectory. Over the course of a long journey, it may end up hundreds of miles from where it would have without that slight adjustment.
Think of your life the same way. Turn too sharply, and you might capsize, but a slow, gentle change will get you where you want to be.