Small changes can make a big difference

I’ve been thinking a lot about all the things I’ve learned in my career about how to help people live the best possible lives. A lot of what we do in therapy is very individualized, but there are also some changes that improve quality of life for most people.  The trick is to make change in the right way.

Often, people approach change in one of two ways. Either they put off the change, because it seems too daunting and they’re too busy (or tired or overwhelmed or hopeless or stuck) to figure out how to implement it; or they dive in whole heartedly with a big change, but then lose momentum when it seems too hard.

Instead, let me propose this idea.  Make a small change.  Pick something really small you can change, and then, make it even smaller. You want to make this proposed change so easy that it’s almost embarrassed by how small it is.  With something so small, it’s easy to commit to it. 

Then, tell someone.  Ask them to join you in it, or ask them to check in with you about it. Many people love to encourage others to be happier and feel better.  Think of someone in your life who wants good things for you, or who is generally helpful. Then ask them to be your partner or helper.

Lastly, commit to this change for thirty days. Because we’ve picked something so easy and small, hopefully, it will be no big deal to try it for a month. After a month of trying something, you’ll have a really good sense of how it works for you, and if you want to keep it, modify it, or throw it out and try something new. (Caveat: If making a commitment for thirty days makes it too hard, then do it for a week. After a week, you can reassess.)

Now that I’ve described how to make a change, let me suggest a few changes that I think are helpful for many people.  Maybe one of them will sound like something you want to try. Or maybe one of these will spark an idea of your own.

1) Pick a time to go to sleep every night and commit to it. Ideally, it’s best to go to bed and wake up at the same time each day, but even picking a consistent bedtime makes a huge difference.

2) Sit in quiet reflection (meditation, prayer, breathing) for five minutes at the start or end of your day. 

3) Reflect on five things you are grateful for at the end of your day (I usually recommend doing it as you drift off to sleep). They can be big or small-it can even be gratitude that a difficult day has ended!

4) Spend ten minutes walking outside every day. While exercise is certainly useful in numerous ways, research suggests that doing so in a natural surrounding improves pleasure, vitality, and self-esteem, and decreases fatigue, tension and depression. 

5) Start each meeting with your own version of a three breath practice (originally learned from Chade Meng-Tan, Google’s Chief Happiness Officer). With the first breath, just notice how the breath feels. With the second breath, find something you can relax in your body. With the third breath, open to the possibility of joy (whatever that means to you).  You can modify this to suit your needs. Or even just take three quiet breaths before each meeting.  

So pick one of these changes to make, or pick one of your own.  Make it something easy, that you’re kind of excited to try.  I’ve found that as people begin to feel a little bit better, they have more energy to add more changes.  So don’t worry if your change seems small–each change makes it that much easier to make the next change.

I’d love to hear what small changes you’ve decided to make, and how it works out for you!