Maybe you’ve been thinking about moving on from your current job. Or going back to school. Or getting up an hour earlier, so you can actually eat a real breakfast and enjoy your coffee before the kids are up.
And maybe you’ve been contemplating these changes for a month, or a year, and yet you haven’t done anything.
What’s going on? Why do you stay stuck in old habits (and probably berate yourself for doing so)?
Whether change is our idea or it’s thrust upon us, most of us experience some degree of anxiety when faced with this possibility. We second-guess our ability to do things differently, become overwhelmed, or automatically assume that keeping life the same as it’s always been would be preferable to trying something new.
Yet, staying where we are can lead to stagnation and also depression, since we are meant to grow, and a little voice inside us knows this. Ignore that inner hunch at your own risk.
Trying some of the following approaches may ease the process of change for you:
- Take things one step at a time. Do not wear yourself out worrying about tomorrow or even later today. If distracted, ask yourself, “Where are my feet now? What am I doing at this moment?” Or just breathe and think “here” on the in-breath and “now” on the out-breath. Strive to be fully present in the moment. In doing so, you not only conserve your energy by letting go of the past and the future, but you’ll be more alert to your current surroundings and what’s going on within you, and thus more likely to pick up on signs, coincidences, and hunches that can point you to your next indicated step. You will learn as you go.
- Start now. Even if it’s taking five minutes to check a job board or look at a college catalog, or setting your morning alarm for 15 minutes earlier than usual, get in the habit of making small changes now. Postponing things until tomorrow is seductive and treacherous, since you will reinforce the habit of choosing comfort over challenge. On the other hand, you can become more comfortable with doing things differently by doing so frequently.
- You don’t need to wait for a crisis in order to make a change. An emergency situation can certainly get your adrenalin going and perhaps precipitate some short-term promises of change (“I’ll never drink/cheat/eat an entire cheesecake again!”), but chances are that such shifts in behavior will be short-lived. Your best bet is to be sufficiently in tune with yourself to discern when your behavior and personal goals may be at odds. Then, carefully consider how you might create a good support system, manageable action steps, and important motives to sustain the desired change. Be gentle with yourself and make a list of the many reasons why you can and will succeed, while not discounting the challenges that may lie ahead.
- Don’t take on too much change at once. While doing something novel can stimulate a surge of the feel-good hormone dopamine, making numerous modifications at the same time can cause anxiety and confusion. When possible, try to pace yourself. For instance, if you’re starting a new exercise regime this month, put off remodeling the kitchen until next month, and wait until next semester to enroll in graduate school. However, don’t use this tactic as an excuse to put off making desirable changes if other factors make it necessary to take on all three changes simultaneously or in close succession.
- Focus on being willing to make a change rather than on wanting to. Not many people truly love every aspect of trying new things. Usually there are a fair amount of uncomfortable feelings. Even if the change is accompanied by many wonderful opportunities, such as a new job with interesting work and friendly associates, there are likely to be some nerve-wracking moments. Don’t let your feelings have the last word. Remind yourself of your values and goals, and be willing to take effective action, even if you’re feeling queasy.
- It is never too late to change. I know people who’ve made dramatic shifts in their 50s, 60s, 70s, and beyond. My grandfather’s attitude and mood improved markedly in his 90s, a change that endured until his passing just before his 102nd birthday. The possibility of change is bolstered by the belief that it is possible. Start with this premise, remember what challenges you’ve surmounted in the past, which of your character strengths helped to make this come about, and ask for the help you need. As Stephen Covey said, “We become what we repeatedly do.” Determine who you want to be and what you stand for, and begin to live as if you already are this person. You will falter, make mistakes, and choose unwisely at times, but that’s all part of the growth process.
- You are only responsible for your own attitudes and actions. Other people’s behavior is their business. Focus on what you can change, which is yourself. Sometimes your example may inspire other people and motivate them to change, but don’t hold your breath. As you move forward with your life and take value-directed steps, you will attract like-minded people. Sometimes other relationships will no longer be a good fit for you, which can be painful. Nevertheless, know and follow your own north star.
Make no mistake about it – the decision to change takes courage. In the short run, it is usually easier to stay where you are. However, in certain circumstances you are being nudged to make a shift. So, heed that nudge. After all, “A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships were built for.” (John Shedd) Neither were you. Set sail.