Six Strategies to Keep Change Simple
How many times have you rushed into making a change — maybe you’re ready to change a habit that just isn’t serving you anymore, you’re taking the business to a new level or you’ve committed to learning something new — only to find that you run out of steam or get discouraged and don’t see it through?
I see it happen all too often with organizations and with individuals.
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When we’re ready for a change in our lives or excited about something new – whether we want to make changes in our work day, start a new project with our team or get into better shape — we tend to dive in and want it right away, as quickly as we can. We’re excited, we’re energized, we’re ready to see it through.
Yet change tends to take time, as we’re shifting old habits and creating something new. And it takes consistent practice before it becomes second nature.
Whether you want to make a change for yourself, within your team or organization, taking new actions, working in a new way and creating new habits takes consistent practice before they become second nature.
How to Make Big Changes in a Way That Lasts
How do you make a big change successful — and in way that sticks? Whether you’re an organization or an individual, you need to take consistent small steps toward your goal.
This is a foundational principle behind Kaizen, the Japanese practice of continuous improvement, and is supported by neuroscience. The idea is that big results come from many small changes accumulated over time.
Unfortunately what we often do – it’s human nature – is dive in, overwhelm ourselves and possibly our teams, and we either don’t create lasting change or we make the process of change much more complicated than it actually needs to be.
The reality is that it doesn’t need to be that way. One of the reasons I’ve been successful in leading individuals, teams and organizations through change for over 20 years now is that we work on defining the big picture and then having the discipline to continually come back to the very next step to move in that direction.
Here’s how and why slow, consistent actions will make you more likely to succeed with lasting, positive change.
Recent advances in neuroscience and technology allow brain researchers to understand the way our minds work in ways that weren’t available until quite recently. As scientists observe how different areas of the brain light up in response to different thoughts, it’s clear that big change triggers a fear (“fight or flight”) response and so we avoid it.
Most of our day-to-day actions, including our work and our personal habits, are hardwired into our brains. That means these repetitive tasks take less mental energy to perform. We don’t have to give them much conscious thought. They’ve become mentally comfortable, and, like an old pair of shoes, they not only fit right but they feel good.
So change – even thinking of change, talking about a change – pulls us out of this comfort zone. If suddenly we find ourselves walking a long distance in a new pair of shoes that need some wearing on, they may give us blisters.
In a similar way, when the prefrontal cortex receives too much too quickly – in the form of complex or unfamiliar concepts – the brain’s fear response kicks into gear. This is supported by the amygdala which is responsible for decision-making, emotional reactions and our “flight or fight” response.
This is why we start to feel anxiety, fear, even sadness, fatigue or anger about a change. And because these are not pleasant feelings, all kinds of resistance are triggered. This makes it easy to fall back into our old, safe patterns.
How to Make Change That Lasts
So if the experts agree that it’s not a good idea to jump head first into a big transition or change, is there a more effective approach? As it turns out, the secret to big change that lasts is taking small steps over time.
This helps you begin to retrain the reptilian part of your brain that’s largely unconscious and automatic – and also resistant to change – and to do it in a way that feels safe. So you can get around the fear response triggered by undertaking what feels like a big, complex change.
If you’re ready for a change, here are six small steps you can take to make it last:
1. Write it down.
Several recent studies show that simply getting clear on your goal and putting it in writing means you’re more likely to achieve it. Write down what you want to do and how you’ll know when it’s complete. If you’re working with a team, it’s important that – as much as possible – everyone’s on the same page about the desired outcome.
2. Start small. What is one small step you can take today to move in the direction of your goal? Let’s say you want to get fit. If you’re not exercising at all, you could start small by walking for 5-10 minutes today. Your brain is hardwired to resist complex or overwhelming change. Small is easier and means less resistance.
3. Be consistent. This consistency will help to retrain your brain and builds momentum toward bigger change. It helps to find a way to track your progress. Consider keeping a journal or using a project management tool for a larger organizational effort. Allow yourself and your team the opportunity to express how you’re feeling. Acknowledge yourself for the steps you’ve taken. If your goal is to walk 3 days/week, try scheduling it on your calendar. If you miss a day, go ahead and reschedule it.
4. Get Support. Whatever your goal, project or new habit is, chances are someone has done something similar before you. Get support with a guide or mentor. Or connect with someone who’s done what you’re wanting to do.
There are many ways to do this: you can research online or in a book, work with a coach, or join a support group or team. You can even reach out to someone for an in-person meeting. If the person isn’t nearby, try a “virtual coffee” (as one of my mentors calls it). Many people are more than willing to share their wisdom and experiences – and this can help you sidestep a dilemma or two down the road. Who can you connect with for support? What can you learn from others who have already done what you want to do?
5. Be patient. Go easy on yourself. Small turns into big over time. Studies show new habits take anywhere from 3 weeks to 2 months to begin to become routine. As you take steps toward change, you build momentum. Once you start walking for a few minutes each day, it becomes much easier to take a longer 30 minute walk several times a week.
When and if fear or resistance shows up, acknowledge it. Instead of pretending the fear or resistance isn’t there, try sitting with what is coming up and asking what it has to teach you. Be patient with yourself. Do this even – and especially – when the steps you have taken fall short of your own expectations.
6. Be playful. Celebrate and have some fun along the way. Studies show gratitude and acknowledging even small success along the way are keys to staying motivated. And of course, celebrate when you reach your goals.
If things don’t turn out as planned, it’s easy to let your inner critic take over. Change – like life – is a journey and not a destination. See if you can bring some lightheartedness and fun into it along the way. How can you enjoy it more? Celebrate small wins and enjoy the process!
We all have ideas of a better self and an ideal life that are often quite different from the one we have today. And we expect that we’ll be happy once we arrive – once we have the house or the job or the lifestyle or the body or the partner. Yet studies show the reverse – we’re more likely to succeed when we approach change with a positive attitude.
Whatever change looks like for you… try to embrace it as a part of the adventure of life. With this approach, you’re not only more likely to reach your goals but more likely to enjoy the journey along the way.
Start small. Take baby steps. Be consistent. When you get off track, get back on track. Be grateful for what you do have now. Have fun. And watch big change unfold.
If you enjoyed this post and want support for making changes in your own workday or daily life, contact me directly to see if you qualify for a complimentary strategy session.
You can also learn more about me, read more blog posts, download free tips to create a business and a life you love, or check out the stories of people who have worked with me.