How to Change When Change Seems Difficult to Impossible (+ 3 Tricks to Stay on Track)
This post originally appeared as a message to my ‘Monday Motivation” email list. You can find details on joining below.
Want to know the hardest thing about changing?
It’s not motivation — most people are motivated to change deep down.
It’s not the lack of a promise of a better future — we know if we did x or changed habit y our lives would be much better.
The hardest part of changing is getting rid of your label.
If you’ve read my book, you know about this concept, but it’s important to revisit because it’s the key component to understanding why you feel stuck and discovering how to get out of your rut.
Human beings categorize people and situations to make their lives easier. We have to, because we couldn’t get on with life if we had to carefully discern each situation, personality, and nuanced piece of information about our environment.
The problem with these mental shortcuts, however, is the fact they can end up defining us. We subtly slap these labels on other people and we allow them to place them on us.
You know your label. It’s the one flaw you want to change. You’re also able to shrug your shoulders off when you fail at changing it, though, because “it’s just who you are.”
Confirmation Bias — Why We Only See What We Believe to be True
See, the problem with having a hiccup on the road to change isn’t just the hiccup itself.
As soon as you do the thing — whatever you’ve been prone to doing before — you don’t just think of your failure in isolation.
You think of every time you’ve screwed this up.
You add up those situations and come up with a lengthy list of failures.
You look at this long list as failures as evidence for why you’ll always be the same.
What’s worse is you confirm other people’s view of you too. If you have a belief about yourself and you screw up, confirmation bias kicks in — meaning your mind works to find evidence for what you believe and discards everything else.
Not only does this bias re-affirm itself in your mind, but it projects out in your behavior. Other people who know you see this repeating pattern and it confirms their view of you, creating a viscous cycle of psychological nails pounding into the coffin of your personality.
Is it true, though? Are you making no progress? Are you destined to stay the same?
Before and After — Why We Can’t See Change in Real Time (and What to Do About it)
Have you ever seen a before and after picture of someone who has lost a bunch of weight?
Almost as if it’s an entirely different person. It’s amazing to be the person who experiences these changes, but even they don’t notice the stark contrast until they compare their current selves to the past.
My point? When you’re trying to change, it’ll be hard to see how much you’ve changed over time unless you consciously reflect on it.
You have to do the work to change, sure, but it’s important to keep track of your progression in different time periods to know that your strategies are working.
Also, you’ll defend against believing you’re destined to say the same when you inevitably get off track from time to time.
So how do you make sure your next journey of change works out better than the last? Ruthlessly track your behavior and keep a record of how well you’ve done so you can reflect on it during those difficult moments.
A few ways to do this are:
- Keep a journal — Benjamin Franklin kept a journal documenting the “13 virtues” he wanted to master. Each day, he focused on one of the virtues and at the end of the day, he marked off the ones he didn’t do well on. Over time, the marks got fewer and fewer, and he had a record of his improvement to stand on. Keeping a journal and thoughtfully detailing your life and your effort to improve it has a rarely matched affect on your disposition and motivation.
- Use the calendar ‘x’ strategy — This strategy has been famously and falsely attributed to Jerry Seinfeld, but it works. Each day you successfully make a step toward the change you want to make — working out, writing, staying present with your friends and family — mark an x on your calendar. After a while, you’ll form a chain of “x’s” and you’ll be motivated to keep the chain going.
- Find a community to keep you accountable — Depending on what you’re going through or trying to change, there are other people dealing with the same struggles. Find people who understand your situation, confide in them, help them grow, and have them keep you accountable.
Change is a Battle Worth Fighting
I know change is possible because I’ve done it.
I still struggle with doing things that make me feel ashamed of myself. I have uphill battles in my life too but I know they’re worth fighting because winning is so sweet.
This isn’t about being a perfectionist. It isn’t about wanting to be seen as something you’re not.
It’s about removing the labels you don’t deserve.
You were born a blank slate with all the potential in the world. You had natural tendencies sure.
But had your parents not subtly hinted at you not being the smart sibling…
Had your teacher not suggested you go to a trade school because it’d be a better fit…
Had the magazine not implied you’re unworthy of your weight…
You’d be a different person.
Maybe your behavior has lived up to your labels for your whole life.
Maybe there’s a mountain of evidence for why you can’t change.
None of that matters in the moment you decide to start again. There’s always hope. As a human being, you’re capable of using your mind and imagination to accomplish nearly anything.
It won’t be easy, but knowing that is the start.
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