How to Change Your Life for Good

Change starts with you.

I wish there was an easier way to put that.  If only change began when we read or saw something that excited us.  If that was the way to make a big change, we'd be able to maintain the "aha" moment.  The thrill would last.  Each day we'd feel energized for our new path.

If only reading my blog, or watching a podcast, or joining a class took care of making the change you dream about.  Those things might be the inspiration, they might offer a guide, they might create a community you can join – but you need to take the steps.


A thousand steps

Or what about the adage that says change starts when you hit rock bottom?  If only that were true.  I've known people who believed they'd hit rock bottom, tried to change, and then when things started to go wrong (or they were confronted with the demons they'd been hiding from all along), they fell again.  Sometimes they fell further.  Rock bottom hadn't been the bottom after all.

True change is a thousand steps, and the inspiration or the fear that get us going mark Step 1.  Even making it to Step 100 is wonderful – but what about Step 101?  And there are so many more to go.

I know what I'm talking about.  I went from being a constant clothes- and home goods-shopper to someone who rarely shops for anything but the bare necessities.  When I say "rarely," I mean that yes, sometimes I splurge.  Sometimes extras creep in.  Sometimes I look around my house and see things I don't use and don't want.  And I've been at this minimalist thing for over 25 years.

I've succeeded in losing over 17 pounds so far this year, mostly by avoiding a lot of desserts and refined carbs.  But don't congratulate me too quickly, because I've managed to lose 40 pounds two or three times by doing the same thing.  Each time, I eventually quit paying attention, went back to old habits, and regained the weight.  Plus a little more.  I absolutely know what it is to reach Step 100 and go no further.

We need to get past Step 100.

"But this time I mean it."  Have you ever said anything like that?  So have I.  What's the secret?  How do we get off our well-beaten paths made of old habits to bushwhack a new road in the wilderness?  Especially if people around us are all going a different way.

  • Your friends love to read shelter magazines, go to home expos, and redecorate constantly.
  • Your co-workers bring platters of treats to work almost every day, and urge you to "just have a taste."
  • You don't know anyone who doesn't have at least one drink every evening, or go out to bars every weekend.
  • Your boss always sports the latest in hair, clothing, accessories, transport, etc.
  • Your social media displays spa weekends and increasingly frequent and exotic travel.

Getting out of debt, finally decluttering, deepening and strengthening relationships, getting in shape, or building your own business are all situations that entail great effort.  Choices made and acted on over and over and over.  Continual steps taken on a long road.

This is starting to sound impossible, but we all know it isn't.  You probably know at least one person who has written and published a book, become adept at playing a musical instrument, or mastered the art of cooking, painting, or golfing.

I used to tell my students that "no one is born knowing everything."  Yes, even Einstein had to learn to add, subtract, multiply, and divide.  He may have picked up the concepts quickly, but he still had to grasp those algorithms.

With effort, we all learn.  In fact, watch a very young child.  The average 4- or 5-year-old has gained an amazing range of skills and information, and they constantly acquire more.

What's interesting about young children is how readily they'll try a new skill.  For the most part, they try, and try, and try, making very small improvements, until "suddenly" they can do what they couldn't do before.  I've never seen one who gave up on walking because he tottered and fell.  Not a single able-bodied child has decided "Well, this is hard.  I have to coordinate all of these muscles, bones, and joints.  My brain has to maintain my balance.  I have to navigate over different surfaces and around obstacles.  Whoa!  It's just too much!"

How to be a toddler

I've thought about why young children stick with something new until they eventually master it, and why we're so prone to give up when the going gets a bit tough.  Why do we give up, and why do they keep trying until they succeed?

Let's return to the example of learning to walk.  Why do young children stick with it until they succeed, even as they fail many times?

  • They intuitively know they can do it because they see others do it.
  • They gain more independence as they achieve it, which they like because it lets them go on and do other things.
  • They're praised for any small successes ("You stood up by yourself!"), and not assessed or berated when they fail.
  • They're not afraid to ask for help, or to take a break and try again later.
  • Their efforts are part of social interactions which are essential to the happiness and development of humans.
  • It's fun.  According to Harvard University's Center on the Developing Child, "The ingredients of play are precisely the ones that fuel learning.  Play is intrinsically motivating, it presents an opportunity for novel experience, it requires active engagement, it strengthens social bonds, and it reduces stress."

Young children don't have to be coaxed or inspired to learn new things – they are learners.  They learn and change all the time.  It's just what they do.

Be a learner.

Change starts with you.  That means you and I need to become learners.  We need to be like toddlers.

So whatever it is you aspire to, can you say these things?

  • You know you can do it because you spend time with others who already have.
  • You'll gain self-confidence and independence as you progress step by step.
  • You'll celebrate even small successes, and won't punish yourself when you fail – you'll just try again another way.
  • You're not too proud to ask for help, or to take a break and try again later.
  • Your efforts are supported by social interactions that lead to your happiness and development.
  • You're motivated by your own goals, future, and well-being.  You aren't trying to impress or placate someone else.
  • You find ways to make it fun, active, social, and/or stress-relieving.

If these things are true, you're in toddler mode, and you might just keep going beyond Step 1, Step 7, or even Step 100.

Leave the old behind.

Don't be fooled.  You will be tempted by old habits.  You'll be tempted toward your old behavior "just this once."  You'll be tempted by one-step, do-it-quick schemes ("Lose your belly fat before swimsuit season!")  And you'll be tempted by some friends and family who might feel threatened by the new you, who tell you you're wasting your time, or who are ready to laugh when you stumble even a little.

You might need to leave some of those people behind and find some new companions.  And it's just possible that if you keep going on your new road, you'll find it's not as untraveled as you thought.  The right people may seemingly show up out of nowhere.  If you're looking to become minimalist, I and your fellow readers might be your virtual club.

Change starts with you.  Are you ready?

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