10 Critical Steps to Sustainable Life Change
As much as we say we want a life change, to become better people, to improve ourselves, we often face change kicking and screaming. It’s one thing to envision yourself as slim, trim, and healthy, but quite another to put on your running shoes and break a sweat.
Even when we are highly motivated or inspired, change is hard. It is hard to initiate it, and it is hard when it’s thrust upon us. We are creatures of comfort, and every change (even small changes) requires some level of physical, mental, or psychological discomfort.
This threat of discomfort keeps us trapped in a cycle of desire and failure. We want to be better people, but we can’t manage to sustain the actions to get there. It takes a toll on our self-esteem. The more times we try and fail, the more like failures we feel. Then we lose hope of ever succeeding, so we stop trying.
Most of the time we view change as a giant leap from where we are now to the final place we want to be. We try to attack change like an ant pushing a bowling ball uphill. But if you view change this way, you are bound to fail.
Change is hard because most of us go about it in the wrong way. We don’t know why we keep failing. We think it has to do with personal weakness. But most of the time, it doesn’t. It has to do with a lack of knowledge.
What Is Change?
Change is nothing more than the formation of a series of habits. Look at your life as it is right now. Most of what you do, what you think, and how you behave is habitual.
- You get up in the morning and go through the same routines.
- You go to work and follow generally the same schedule.
- You interact with and react to people in the same ways.
- You come home and follow the same routines for dinner, relaxation, and bedtime.
Yes, there are small differences in your routine, but rarely do you insert some sustained, on-going activity or new way of doing something.
You have developed the patterns of your daily habits over many years. Some you carried from childhood, and others you picked up along the way. But most of your daily habits have been repeated enough times that your brain circuitry is entrenched in these behaviors.
Rewire Your Brain
To change the behaviors, you must rewire your brain. And rewiring your brain takes practice, patience, and the knowledge of how to do it.
In my work as a personal coach and teaching The Habit Course (with my partners Leo Babauta and Katie Tallo), I work with people on a simple method for making sustainable life change. This is a method that has been tested and well-researched. If you follow it, you can make sustainable life change.
Here are the steps:
1. Plan and prepare.
You can’t just jump into a new behavior without preparation. You would be setting yourself up for failure right off the bat. You must get yourself mentally, physically, emotionally, and practically ready and ripe to be successful. This includes creating a vision for yourself of the outcome, and planning a system of triggers, accountability, support, and rewards.
2. Start really, really small.
Every new habit is comprised of many smaller habits. For example, taking up running could involve getting up earlier, putting on your running clothes, stretching, etc. Break down each new habit into its smallest parts, and begin with just one of those small parts as your first change.
3. Stick to 5 minutes.
When you begin this small new habit, do it for 5 minutes only during the first 2 weeks. This will feel very easy (especially for some small habits), but it begins the process of retraining your brain to accept this new behavior. This 5 minute rule is critical to your success, so don’t break it!
4. Find a trigger.
A trigger is an established habit or action that you can use to “trigger” your memory to perform your new habit. You want to perform your new habit immediately after the trigger. For example, you might practice your new habit of meditation immediately after the trigger of brushing your teeth (an established habit). The trigger must be something that is firmly established for you.
5. Set up accountability.
Most of us don’t tell people when we try to change just in case we fail. We don’t want to be embarrassed. But actually telling people is key to your success. You want to find a place to report your daily habit work, whether it’s through social media, on a forum, or by email to a group of friends. When you know someone is counting on you, you will try harder.
6. Acknowledge success.
Set up a reward system for yourself that immediately follows the new habit. You have to plan a reward system to keep your motivation and positivity at a high level. Gold stars, a piece of chocolate, a nap, anything that feels like a reward will work to reinforce your habit. Our students in the Habit Course loved the gold stars!
7. Create a support system.
Communicate with those close to you about your plans for life change, and get their buy-in and support. If you don’t, you are setting yourself up for trouble. If your new habit disrupts the lives of others, and you haven’t communicated with them or gotten their support, they may sabotage your efforts.
8. Plan for disruptions.
During the planning phase of your life change, you create a “disruption contingency plan.” Unexpected things will happen. You may get sick. You might have to travel. You may need to change the time or place for your habit. Don’t allow these events to be an excuse for interrupting your change work. Plan for them in advance so you aren’t blindsided by the unexpected.
9. Increase your time slowly.
Be sure that your new habit is fully automatic before you increase the time past 5 minutes. If you have missed more than a day or two during the first two weeks, then add another week of practicing for 5 minutes only. Once it feels automatic, increase to 10 minutes. Keep adding time as the change feels automatic.
10. One change at a time.
Tackle only one new change in your life at a time. It can take 4-8 weeks for a new habit to be fully automatic. The more difficult the habit, the longer it will take. Don’t begin another one until you have to first one firmly established.
You probably have something on your mind right now that you’ve wanted to incorporate in your life. Maybe exercise. Or eating healthy. Or starting a project. Or meditating. Whatever it is, if you follow the method outlined above, you will have the key to sustainable life change.
Photo by Hernán Piñera