Think Small for Real Change
A key component to what makes people successful in life and what makes for lasting change is taking small, incremental and mindful steps. This seems like common sense but I frequently notice that people get caught up in lofty goals and set themselves up for failure. The pattern seems to be: 1)identify goal for big life change, 2)attempt big life change, 3)fail at big life change, and 4)abandon goal, usually feeling discouraged, disatisfied, or cynical.
I'd like to propose a different mindset for making real change happen in your life. While I think having goals is important and useful, I think it is more important to be really clear on what direction you want your life to go (your values) and to keep that in your focus as well. Think of a goal as something finite that you can accomplish. Once you accomplish it, you're done with that goal. You can then set another goal and accomplish it. And so on and so on. Values, however, are the direction you want your life to take - you never stop having a value - you live it until you die. And, most importantly, there are a million ways to live your life according to your values, small ways that will make your life more meaningful and vital, that you can do every single day of your life.
I'll use an example of physical health to illustrate this concept.
Identify values as well as goals
Let's say you've had some goals in mind for sometime: "I want to run a mile without stopping," "I want to bench press 200 pounds, " or "I want to eat more leafy greens everyday." These are all goals. It's great to have them but I'd like to suggest that all of these point at something of value - being healthy. In fact we can make it into a statement: "It is important to me to be healthy." Do you notice how broad this statement is? There are countless ways and almost limitless choices you can make that keep you moving in the direction of being more healthy. All of which make life meaningful because you're living a life where you are doing things to feel and be healthy, which is of value to you. But how does this work in the day-to-day of life? What happens when you're having a bad day and nothing seems to be going well?
Making changes by starting small
In the present moment, no matter what your external circumstances are or what your current internal state is like, you can make a choice in the direction of your values. You can ask yourself: "how can I commit to being healthy right now, in this moment?" And you can choose something to commit to - maybe it is to reorganize your schedule to go to the gym today, or perhaps it is to just stop what you are doing and stretch, or it could be mindfully choosing something healthier to eat in the next few minutes. It doesn't really matter, what matters is that you are choosing things (even small things) that move your life in the direction you want.
Make changes mindfully
There is an added step, however. And that is to try a bit of mindfulness. Can you sit with your choice and what comes up for you around it? Perhaps it is an easy choice like stretching, but perhaps picking the leafy green salad instead of French fries brings up some difficult thoughts and feelings. Can you be present to these? Can you allow yourself to have them and still make your choice? Creating some space for these thoughts and feelings can help.
In my opinion, these small, but valuable behaviors are where real change happens. Making a conscious choice that is aligned with what's important to you and being able to be present to what comes up and still make the choice is how you change. Real change, and real vitality in life, comes from making these changes every day in small ways. You can still hit your goal of bench pressing 200 pounds but you can also notice that you are living your entire life in a healthy way and that feels meaningful to you - whether or not you ever bench press 200 pounds.
Expect new challenges
Something often happens when you start implementing these small but valuable changes. New stuff comes up - new difficult thoughts, feelings, and memories. Being present to these and continuing to commit to what you value will still be important as you navigate these new (and sometimes challenging) experiences. Often, being open to the experience will keep you moving forward and sometimes you will find deeper areas where you get stuck. Getting support from a friend or working with a therapist can help. Ultimately, you can view your small steps as progress on an upward spiral - encountering familiar and new challenges along the way but creating space to have these as you keep the spiral (your life) moving upward in the direction you want.