If Change Was Easy, Everyone Would Be Doing It
There is a trope common in movies that drives me absolutely nuts. The protagonist has a problematic trait. Maybe they’re a workaholic who ignores their kids. Maybe they’re morally devoid because a conscience has no place in a successful corporate law firm. Maybe they lack confidence or maturity. Maybe they’re an addict.
Then, when they’re at their lowest point, X happens. X leads to a sudden and powerful 180-degree change.
By the end of the movie, they have overcome their negative trait within a period of time ranging from a few minutes to, at most, a few days. They’ve reconciled with their family. They find their soul and are happier for it. They find confidence. They suddenly “grow up.” They kick their bad habit.
Everyone lives happily ever after.
How change does not work
This tired plot device is a big reason why many people oversimplify the idea of meaningful change. Depressed? Just go for a walk in the woods! Overweight? Put down the chicken leg! Lack a conscience? Go get some church, son!
It doesn’t help that there are thousands of self-help books on the market touting the same flawed and, let’s face it, dishonest ideology.
And why not? We like simple solutions. Well… we like the idea of simple solutions whether they work or not. And because the next simple solution is always around the corner, we’ll buy book after book, attend seminar after seminar, watch one bad movie after another in hopes of finally striking that magic answer that will turn our lives around.
Hey, we’ve all been there. I’ve been there. Bought the books. Sat through the lectures. Saw the movies. Eventually realized I was doing it all wrong.
Took long enough.
How change works
Change does not occur thanks to one grand event or single alteration of habit. It’s the result of a series of decisions — sometimes small ones — that build upon each other until change finally, over a period of time, sets in.
Twenty years ago, I quit drinking.
It wasn’t easy and it sure as hell wasn’t done overnight. My process involved several steps. For me, there was a weaning off period where I gradually cut down a dozen beers a night to six a month later then three beers a couple of weeks later, then two, then one… then none. Altogether, it took about six months. But that was just the physical addition. I still dealt with the DTs and some sleepless nights, but weaning off worked better than cold turkey.
With cold turkey, I’d go from twelve beers a night to none the next day and then back to twelve the next day and feel terrible about it — both emotionally and physically. But it wasn’t just about the beer. I had to change my environment. I stopped going to my local bar every single night. Then I stopped going entirely. I didn’t say goodbye to anyone, I just stopped going. I didn’t even drop in for a soda. I also found new things to do with my life. I joined a retrocomputing club. I started taking classes in Japanese. I started writing short fiction. I made new friends that existed outside of a bar.
See… it wasn’t one single thing I did that helped me quit drinking (and, thereby, save my life), but a series of things all done together and in a series that really made the difference.
This past summer I was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. This wasn’t a situation where I just needed to cut down on the cupcakes. This was more of a “why the hell aren’t you in a coma?” diagnosis where there was talk of calling for an ambulance to take me from the doctor’s office to the hospital.
Fortunately, they just shot me full of insulin and handed me my Type 2 diabetes starter pack. But that wasn’t going to be enough by itself to get my dangerously high A1C down to a safe level. There were meetings with nutritionists. There was a support group. There were radical changes to my diet that had to be put in place. There was finding the right mix of medications that worked best for me and a bunch of tests to make sure I hadn’t done myself any permanent damage.
Within four months I lost over 20 lbs and got my A1C down to normal levels. Even my vision returned to normal. Again, this didn’t happen overnight. It happened after an extended period of changes in habits and lifestyles that built upon each other. I was fortunate to have a great doctor and a very supportive family. Not everyone has these and too many people still struggle with major change because…well…change is hard.
But it was never one single movie “a-ha” moment that did the trick. It was more like an extended montage that lasted months or years and without the cool montage music.
We like the status quo
Disruption is not something human beings enjoy. It’s amazing how much crap we’ll put up with simply because our discomfort with change outweighs the discomfort of whatever our current bad situation is.
That said, we also have a tendency to preserve our status quo after we’ve gone through all of the trials and hardships that led to whatever transformation we achieved.
It’s been over twenty years since I’ve had a drink, but nothing is stopping me from having one right now.
Nothing except that I’ve grown to like my life as it is now. My family, my career, my friends — all of which were not things I had back in my drinking days. I am also aware of how one drink could lead to two or three or more. I also know that I could probably just have one drink and then not think about it again for another twenty years.
But I want to protect my status quo and if one drink might put that to risk, then it’s not worth it.
I haven’t had a goddamn cupcake since September. Nor a real candy bar nor a big bowl of pasta. I feel better now than I have in a long time. Right there is my incentive to keep up with these changing and improving habits. It’s still a struggle, but because I’m doing the work, making measurable progress, and not expecting a complete transformation all at once, I’m winning.
My life will never go back to the way it was, and I don’t want it to.
Now I’m invested.
And I think that’s a big part of making change last… the feeling of investment. Why throw away twenty years of sobriety? Why throw away a healthier body?
Yes, people backslide all the time. Drunks pick up drinks again, former smokers start smoking again. None feel good about it, but it’s usually because the change they sought hasn’t had the investment of time and effort it needed to set in and become the new status quo.
We’re at our most vulnerable while we’re in the midst of change
Talk to someone who hasn’t had a cigarette in ten years. Or alcohol in twenty. Sure, now and then there is a pull — an urge — but the strength of the new, better status quo usually wins.
It’s that period of time when we haven’t fully invested in our change or fully seen the positive results of change that is when we’re most vulnerable.
While I never took part in 12-step programs, I recognize their value and effectiveness in helping a lot of people achieve positive change. Probably the one thing I like most about those programs is the “one day at a time” attitude.
Each day builds on the previous day. If you slip up, don’t fret. Just brush yourself off and start with another day. By approaching it one day at a time, you strengthen and embrace the positive habits as the negative ones move further into the past. The more days you manage to make it, the less likely backsliding will occur.
You’ve invested too much time and effort to want to waste that, and then the change becomes the new normal.
If you find yourself trying to change something about yourself, and get frustrated when you have trouble getting traction, just remember that one day at a time will turn into one week at a time, then one month at a time, and so on.
You may find yourself wondering why you had that negative habit to begin with. It seems so long ago, like a different lifetime.
And that is lasting change — achieved through a series of smaller changes building upon each other over a period of time.
No movie stars have been hurt in the making of this new lifestyle.
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