It’s that time of year again where you or your loved ones profess that this is the year where you will make big, radical life changes. You’ll become healthy, have a wonderful relationship, travel, buy a home, and on and on the list goes. Many of us get caught up in the ‘big promises, big disappointments’ trap. Despite the fact that the vast majority of people break New Year’s resolutions, many of us continue to entrap ourselves with big ideas that more often than not lead to big shameful feelings in ourselves.
We’re living in a rapidly changing, high-paced, information-rich world. On the one hand we have unprecedented access to opportunities to learn and grow as our experience of the world expands.
However, we’re also showing more signs of exhaustion and fatigue as a result of the pressures to keep up with the pace of living in this world of opportunity and to stay on top of over-scheduled diaries.
If you, like many people, are feeling in a near constant state of overwhelm and your mind is consistently telling you that your hopes and dreams are too daunting, then you may benefit from responding differently. Rather than focusing on doing it all, why not focus on small steady incremental changes, one decision at a time. The Power of Small aims to teach you to do just that. Here are five small steps you can take to bring you closer to the life you want.
1 Set yourself small, manageable goals – this will help you have longevity…
Most of us are more comfortable with the familiar, but also recognise that it’s important to move outside the familiar to gain more out of life. In trying to move outside of our comfort zone, we often stretch ourselves too far. For example, you haven’t gone to the gym in months, or years, and you start going five times a week. Very soon you either run out of steam, or worse still, injure yourself.
Look at an area of your life you want to make changes in, for example relationships, health and well-being or work. Honestly and gently reflect on where you are now and where you want to be. Our natural tendency can be to set an immediate goal that is so far away from where we are now that it seems unmanageable and unattainable. We invite you to break down your bigger goal into smaller, more manageable, and attainable steps. The research backs us up – you have a far greater chance of making meaningful and sustainable changes if you do.
For example, rather than going from zero to five days a week at the gym, set an initial goal.
Start with going twice a week for 30 minutes, even if you have an urge to stay longer.
You can then build up either the amount of times that you go or increase the length of time you spend there.
2 Identify your key values – this will keep you grounded as you make changes…
Our values connect us with what matters in our lives, and grounding ourselves regularly in them is vitally important as we take the journey of sustainable change. Changes we make that don’t connect with our values will inevitably be short-lived, unfulfilling, or both.
Jot down your answer to one of these three values clarification questions to help you identify your key values.
1. What words would you like your loved ones to use when describing you?
2. What were your childhood dreams?
3. What are the three qualities that are most important to you? For example, kindness, open-mindedness, compassion.
Pick a question that feels a bit outside your comfort zone, but not so much so that it feels overwhelming or unmanageable to answer. Then look at the words you’ve written. What are the key adjectives? They are your core values.
3 Acknowledge your toward and away actions -this is more helpful than labelling your actions as good and bad…
Every small action or inaction we encounter on a daily basis has an impact on how we live. In any given situation there is usually the chance to take action that will either bring us closer to or further away from our values in a particular area of our lives.
Our natural tendency is to label our actions as good or bad. For example, if someone sets a goal of eating healthier, they might label themselves as good when they eat salad and vegetables, and bad when they eat chocolate and crisps. Whilst this is tempting, this labelling ourselves as good or bad, can get us trapped in a shame cycle that makes it harder for us to make lasting changes. It is far healthier, and more effective to recognise those actions that bring you closer towards your values and the actions that move you away.
For example, if you identified psychological well-being as a key value, your towards and away moves will vary depending on your natural tendency, i.e. if you are used to being on the go, then an away move might be continuing to overcommit yourself, and a towards move could be reducing some unnecessary work or social commitments which feel more like obligations.
Identify one aspect of your life that you would like to change. Now identify and write down three small away moves and three small toward moves. Use the example above as a guide. Be careful not to choose toward moves that are too big, as this will lead to a sense of overwhelm.
4 Let your experiences be your guide – this will empower you to live a life that is bigger than the one your mind believes in…
We often take what our minds tell us as absolute truth. We say things like ‘I just wouldn’t be able for that’ to justify backing out of actions that may very well bring us closer to what’s important. We frequently decide whether we should or shouldn’t do something based on what our mind tells us in the moment, rather than on our actual lived experience and what matters most.
This is because of our survival instinct – our minds are trying to keep us safe. However, following the safe mind can lead to an overwhelmingly unfulfilling, uneventful life at one end of the spectrum, or an overwhelmingly overscheduled and unmanageable life at the other.
A small yet effective way to let experience be your guide rather than your mind is to put the phrase ‘I’m having the thought that …’ before your thought. For example, ‘I’m having the thought that I’m overwhelmed.’ This allows you to acknowledge the thought and reconnect with your own experience and values so that they can guide your actions rather than being bullied by limiting thoughts.
5 Allow your unwanted emotions to motivate you -this will lead to richer life…
Every emotion that we experience makes sense and has some purpose from an evolutionary perspective. It’s tempting to label emotions as positive and negative.
However, this sets up a dynamic whereby we see unwanted emotions, such as sadness and anxiety as bad. As a result, we may avoid actions that might bring up some sadness or anxiety within us. This sounds pretty harmless. However, the research is very clear – the more time and energy we spend trying to avoid sadness, the more likely we are to struggle with depression. Similarly, the more unwilling we are to feel anxiety, the more likely we are to experience a clinically diagnosable anxiety disorder.
It’s the time of year where the majority of us want to make changes. Any change worth making will involve at least some unwanted emotions. Rather than seeing these unwanted emotions as negative and trying to get rid of them, see if 2019 can be the year where you ask yourself ‘what does this emotion tell me about what I value and what I find challenging?’ Then allow these answers to guide your actions. This will lead to a far more fulfilling and healthy life than trying to rid yourself of unwanted emotions.
The more willing you are to have unwanted emotions in the small moments, the more changes are available to you in 2019 and beyond.
The Power of Small: Making Tiny But Powerful Changes When Everything Feels Too Much by Aisling Leonard-Curtin and Dr Trish Leonard-Curtin
Health & Living