“Take this pill, every day, for the rest of your life,” my doctor said. I sighed at this obvious sign of decline, envisioning the 7-day pillbox that all old people seem to have. “Already?” I asked. Approaching 40 years old, I was overweight, stressed, and didn’t exercise. My medical history wasn’t great either, my dad having died of a massive heart attack and my mother having suffered from diabetes.
I knew I was killing myself slowly. But the specter of the many changes I needed to make was too overwhelming. I couldn’t face all of it for the sake of some still-distant benefit. So I just kept doing what I was doing.
Yet 10 years later, I’m back to the weight I was in high school, eliminated most of my harmful stresses, and my doctor says I don’t need that pill any more.
Here's what worked for me. Whatever your goal, I hope it helps you make the changes you want to make.
Food as metaphor
But the bigger problem was the set of habits I had developed. That bacon, egg, and cheese on a bagel was like an old, familiar friend I’d see every day. So too was the hamburger with fries, the Chinese food takeout, the slumping on the couch watching TV after a long commute from a stressful job.
Although I knew it wasn’t good, it was what I knew. It also seemed to be what everyone around me was doing. Only now do I understand how much our habits and our environment shape so many aspects of our lives.
Change at work
In my job, I’ve spent years showing people how their way of working was bad for them and for the firm. The pointless meetings. The armies of people processing emails. The ludicrous HR policies and systems. This is the fast food clogging the arteries of corporations.
I pointed out better ways, gave them examples, and they still didn’t change! “What’s wrong with these people?” I would think to myself. But nothing was wrong. I had only to look at my own behavior to see how difficult change is. After all, if verbal persuasion was enough then people wouldn’t buy so many packs of cigarettes with “Smoking kills” pasted on them.
The only thing that worked
There was no single thing that made the most difference for me. It was a combination of things that I learned and applied gradually over time. A few months ago, I found that much of the wisdom and research I discovered in a decade of reading self-help books was distilled into a simple, practical list in Coach Yourself. This short list summarizes the basic approach towards changing anything in your life.
- Take small steps towards your goals
- Set some realistic, achievable goals
- Structure your life to help you attain your goals
- Allow yourself to fail sometimes without turning it into a catastrophe
- Look at the areas where you’re successful
- Reward yourself for your successes
- Focus on your achievements
- Enlist the support of friends
- Chart your progress
- Picture the way you’d like life to be
Where my previous attempts at change failed, it was because I attempted too big a change too quickly, overreacted to my failures, lacked peer support, or missed some other element on this simple list.
The next small step
As I wrote this I reflected on what I did and ate yesterday. My day started with meditation. Then I walked to work, ate a wide range of scrumptious vegetarian meals, had a cold-pressed green juice for a snack. I even went to yoga with my wife, something I hope will be my newest habit.
10 years ago, I couldn’t imagine such a set of changes. But each small change empowered me to do a little more. This process led to a new career, writing a book, and creating a “guided mastery” coaching program that helps people change their own work and life.
Of course, what’s right for me may be wildly different than what’s right for you. The path you take will also be different. But for most of us the change begins with a small, simple step.
What will yours be?