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Last week I talked about a couple questions to ask yourself when you’re looking to make changes, to narrow down where to start. What I didn’t talk about was why we might not want to change everything all at once. You might have some intuition about this, or some experience. Either way, I’d like to explore this idea a little more.
When does everything change?
There are times in your life when the world shifts underneath you and it seems that everything changes. This can be an inner shift, or it can be when you move to a new house, in a new neighbourhood or a new city. Changing jobs is another point when many of your habits need to shift.
One time for me was when I moved out of my parent’s home and into an apartment, with a roommate, at the start of university. Suddenly, I was responsible for the grocery shopping, cleaning, dishes, laundry, and budget, on top of trying to figure out the university thing – bus schedules, textbooks, note-taking, studying. I had the skills to do each of these things individually, but doing all the things… Well, that was a tall order.
I did figure it out and I definitely consider myself a functioning adult now, 10 years later. Yet I also wound up with some habits that didn’t serve me well. One example was that I was only active when I walked places. Which was okay, but wasn’t always enough. I know now there were days and weeks when I could been more focused on my studies by taking physical activity breaks. Plus, it took a few years after university to get into the habit of walking and doing yoga most days.
The opportunity in changing everything
When something big changes, it is an opportunity to put new habits in place. It is a fresh slate. 1 One example is moving, but it can be something smaller, like getting a puppy. The fresh slate can give you a surge of energy that allows you to do more. The fresh slate also loosens the hold that your old habits have on you. So it is easier to break away from habits you want to do less of and create new habits in their place.
The challenge in changing everything
There is danger is trying to change too much at once though. Whether you have a clean slate or not, you run the risk of burning out or becoming overwhelmed. There are two issues at play here.
- Most of us underestimate how much rest we need and
- When you first start making a change, it takes more work.
Remember to balance things out
We underestimate how much rest we need. We believe we can get by on less sleep. We forget about fun and times with friends and family. We try to keep working and not take breaks.
When you don’t give yourself the rest you need, your mind or your body will force you to stop. You will get sick, injured, or struggle to think clearly. If you don’t schedule it rest, it will be forced upon you.
We worry though. We worry that we will use this fact as an excuse to procrastinate. We worry that we will be judged for taking time off. We worry that we will fall behind if we aren’t constantly working to get ahead. We worry that we don’t know what we are doing, so we need to keep doing stuff and hope that something works.
The frustrating part is that no one can tell you how much rest you need. And how much rest you need this week will likely be different than how much rest you need next week. This is where those keys of curiosity and compassion come in handy. Get curious about what is true for you. Be compassionate to yourself as you figure out what is best for you. 2
Doing something in a different way takes effort
It takes more work, both physically and mentally, when you are trying to do something different. Here’s an example that you can try right now. Cross your arms. Go ahead, do it now.
Now cross your arms the other way. What did that feel like? If you’re anything like me, there is a second where you don’t quite understand the direction. “What do you mean, there’s a different way to cross your arms?” But then I do, and it feels weird, but I can do it. If I were to try to cross my arms the ‘opposite’ way every day, it would eventually feel as natural as the ‘normal’ way.
Another way to describe the process of behaviour change was explained to me during a training day at work 3. The instructor said (and I’m paraphrasing because this was a couple of years ago now), that when you are trying to do something differently, you won’t be able to catch yourself before you act. You’ll notice after you do it ‘the old way’ that you did it. You’ll realize a few minutes later, or a couple hours later, or even the next day. Most people call it a mistake and will start to feel guilty or shameful or beat themselves up. My explanation is probably confusing, so let’s use an example instead.
What we call mistakes are actually our brain’s way of learning
Let’s use an example of someone who is trying to eat more mindfully, we’ll call her Susan. Susan walks into the kitchen and sees that there is one cookie left, and she eats it while she is on her way out the door. Later that day, when she is back in the kitchen, she goes to have the last cookie, only to remember that she mindlessly grabbed it earlier in the day. She starts telling herself that she is a pig. But then she remembers that self-compassion is one of the keys to the good life, and she remembers reading this article. 😉
Susan pauses and takes a deep breath. She reminds herself that this is how learning works. She notices that she fell into her old habit, and she wants to do things differently. She knows that it takes time and effort to learn a new way of doing things, so she lets go of the guilt and blame. She sets an intention to notice sooner when she is falling into old habits.
Next time there are cookies, Susan grabs one, but before she eats it, she pauses. She remembers that she mindlessly ate the cookie last time, and didn’t get to enjoy it. This time, she puts the cookie in a container to bring with her to the park. Once there, she sits down on a bench and savours the freshly baked cookie. It tastes amazing, and she is proud of herself for remembering her intention to eat mindfully.
Susan knows that this is still a brand new habit. She might forget in the future about her intention, but she knows that she can pause and choose a different path. She will either remember after she mindlessly eats, or she will remember before. But either way, she will remember that learning a new habit is a process. She will make note that she followed an old habit and set her intention again.
Trying to change everything is hard. Why not set yourself up for success instead?
As we saw in the example above, it takes mental space to create new habits. It is not just a matter of doing, it is also changing the way you think about something. It is possible to change a lot at once, we saw that up at the beginning. But why make things harder than they need to be. When we try to change many habits at once, we need to keep track of all those changes we are trying to make. Even if you have the most organized calendar, diary, schedule or bullet journal, it still takes up a lot of mental space to change one habit. Imagine how hard it is to change many habits.
I’d like to leave you with one question to reflect upon.
One year from now, it won’t matter if you changed one habit at a time or all at once, if you stick with the changes. But why do things the hard way, if you have the choice?
Changing everything, all at once, can be very difficult, overwhelming, or lead to burnout. Making a change requires a lot of brain space because you are also changing your pattern of thinking. So what is the alternative? Change one habit at a time. Check out last week’s article to see some questions to help narrow down where to begin. And stay tuned for next week’s article that gives the next steps in the process.
Until next time,
- This is an idea that I first heard from Gretchen Rubin in her book Better than Before.
- We’ll be coming back to these ideas in the future, but feel free to send me an email or comment down below if you’re wanting me to get on this sooner.
- By Gary Phillips of NorthWest Training and Development in Thunder Bay, ON