Six Small Steps to Big Change
When we’re ready for a change in our lives – whether we want to start a new business, complete a project, get in shape, or simply organize the kitchen pantry — we tend to want it right away. But change can take time: we are shifting old habits, creating something new. Taking new actions and creating new habits takes consistent practice before they become second nature. Read on to learn how to make big changes in a way that sticks.
So how do you change your life in some way? How do you make a big change successful — and in way that sticks? Take consistent baby 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.
Here’s how and why slow, consistent actions will make you more likely to succeed.
Recent advances in neuroscience and technology allow brain researchers to understand the way our minds work in ways that were not available until quite recently. As scientists observe different areas of the brain light up in response to different thoughts, it is 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. These repetitive tasks therefore take less mental energy to perform and 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 talk of 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, supported by the amygdala. The amygdala is responsible for decision-making, emotional reactions and our “flight or fight” response. This is when 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 is 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 usually not a good idea to jump head first into any big transition or change, is there a more effective approach? As it turns out, the secret to big change is taking small steps over time.
This helps you begin to retrain the reptilian part of the brain that is largely unconscious and automatic – and also resistant to change – and to do it in a way that feels safe. So you are often able to get around the fear response triggered by undertaking what feels like a big change.
Here are six small steps you can take for big change:
- Write it down. Several recent studies show that simply getting clear on your goal and putting it in writing means you are 50% more likely to achieve it. Write down what you want to do and, if it’s a project of some sort (as opposed to an ongoing habit), how you’ll know when it’s complete.
- 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.
- Be consistent. This consistency will help to retrain the brain and builds momentum toward bigger change. Consider keeping a journal to chart your progress, express how you’re feeling and acknowledge yourself for the steps you’ve taken. Do this even – and especially – when the steps you have taken fall short of your own expectations.
- Connect. Whatever your goal, project or new habit is, chances are someone has done something similar before you. Connect with that person. There are many ways to do this: you can research blog posts online, read a book, work with a coach, or 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. What can you learn from others who have already done what you want to do?
- 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 show up, acknowledge them. 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.
- 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. 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. Whatever change looks like for you… try to accept it as a part of the process 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. Be grateful for what you do have. And watch big change unfold.
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