Anyone who has voluntarily pursued any kind of significant change in life has probably used the beauty of hindsight to notice how the anticipation of the first step you take into the unknown feels ridiculously scary. It warrants much pondering, sleepless nights, endless conversations with friends (accompanied by several bottles of wine, if it’s anything to do with me) and a few grey hairs which just add to the trauma of the whole situation.
However, once we’ve taken that very first step, so that the change is actually underway, we suddenly become quite blasé about it all and, rather than continuing to obsess over all the if’s, but’s and maybe’s, we seem to develop some kind of magical powers to cope with all the aforementioned uncertainty and just roll with the challenges and issues as they come up.
It’s occurred to me that, as modern day humans, we seem to have two pretty amazing abilities on this subject – 1) to worry endlessly about changes which are yet to happen and over which we may have little control and, conversely, 2) to cope remarkably well when we’re actually face to face with the reality of being up to our eyeballs in it.
Based on that realisation I’m drawn to ponder two questions:
What if we could train ourselves to do a bit less of number 1) and take confidence from the fact that we seem to do pretty well at number 2)? What might life be like then?
What about the situations where number 1) causes you so much bother that you avoid the change altogether and never even get to number 2)? How much opportunity are we missing out on as a result?
I think many of us, occasionally or regularly, fall into one of these two camps – either expending far too much precious energy on worrying about the unknowns that come with change, or letting those concerns entirely get the better of us and inhibit us from changing anything significant in our lives, no matter how unhappy the current situation might make us.
Having experienced this myself, most notably taking 6 months (or the best part of 5 years, depending on which way you look at it) to decide to leave the corporate world, and now having worked with many clients who feel “stuck” in various aspects of their lives, I thought I’d pull together some of my thoughts about positively approaching change in the hope that it might help someone out there take that first little leap forwards.
Go small on the overhaul
It’s only natural that we’re drawn to the idea of ‘quick fixes’ because no-one in their right mind would want to work really hard and wait ages for something, when there might be a much quicker and easier way of getting to where we want to be in life.
The problem is that the things that tend to occupy a lot of our brain time, the things we think we really want or the things we’d ideally like to change, tend to be pretty big. They loom large in our heads, they overwhelm us with their options and implications and spin round and round in the washing machines of our minds until we haven’t got a clue what to do next.
The first thing that I’ll say about this is that, often, it isn’t the really big change that we actually need. It can actually be quite easy to totally change how we feel about a situation by making some quite small tweaks and by choosing to adopt a slightly different mindset or lens through which to view the situation.
I’m not into cycling but it seems like Dave Brailsford often knows what he’s talking about and he believes in the ‘aggregation of marginal gains’, that a 1% improvement in everything you do will add up to a remarkable change. So, he agrees that it’s not all about ‘going big’ on the change front.
The second thing is that, even if you are convinced that it’s a big thing that needs to change in order for you to move forwards and be content, the very best thing that you can do for yourself is work on breaking it down into chunks and from there down into the very smallest parts which can, relatively easily, be turned into actions and hence quite quickly give you the sense that you’re moving forwards.
By breaking things down, we can avoid that overwhelming feeling which often completely paralyses our thinking, our ability to take action, ends up intensifying the sensation of ‘stuckness’ and makes us feel we’re experiencing something similar to Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day.
So, what can we do to help ourselves break down these seemingly monolithic changes?
Like I’ve already said, if you decide you want and need to go after a significant change, then it’s unlikely to happen overnight in one fell swoop. There are going to be a number of stages, and within those stages a number of steps, and within those steps a number of actions, that you’ve going to have to work through in order to get there.
Let’s imagine, arbitrarily, that there are 100 steps that you’re going to have to take to achieve this big change.
Do you need to know, right now, what step 67 needs to be? Nope, you only really need to know that pretty soon after you’ve done step 66 and shortly before you tackle step 68.
Here’s a suggestion for how you can approach the 100 steps scenario:
- Break it down to 3-6 chunks and label each of those chunks – there should be a chronological flow across the sections so you can be confident things will get done in the right order
- Within chunk #1, decide what the 6 most impactful actions are that you can take right now – big emphasis here on what’s most impactful and what you can actually go right ahead and do
- Kick off one of those actions each day for the next week
- On the 7th day you take stock, consider where you’ve got to, revisit chunk #1 and determine what the next 6 most impactful actions are that you can get on with over the next week and, if relevant, may be start to ponder what chunk #2 needs to look like
If each step equates to an action then, by my calculation, you’ll have achieved your big change in just over 4 months. Magic!
(Remember, don’t let yourself get distracted by that horrible step 67 ahead of it’s time. Trust that you’ll work out what to do with it when you get there.)
Here’s a nice saying about taking that first small step…
“You don’t have to take a giant leap to cross over the raging river and get to the peaceful bank on the other side. You just have to work out how to build a bridge.”
Turn on your headlights
I’ve been working with a client recently who’s trying to work out how to move forwards with his small business. He has a really clear vision, buckets of positive energy and enthusiasm, but was struggling to get his head round how he’s going to move from where the business is now to the future state which he’s created in his mind.
He gained quite a bit of clarity during our session and towards the end came up with a really good metaphor for how he was feeling and the approach he felt he now needed to take.
He said he felt like he was driving a really nice car, that he was taking it on quite a long journey but that the weather conditions and visibility weren’t very good right now and that he didn’t actually know the destination that they were ultimately headed for. He knew that that in itself could be a valid reason to not even start the car and get on the road but, instead, he wanted turn on his headlights so that he could at least clearly see the bit of road right in front of him.
He had faith that as he went on the journey each bit of the road would appear, he’d be able to work out which turns to take and, although he might end up taking a bit of a scenic route, that he’d get to the right destination in the end.
I’m not always a big fan of metaphors – I find they can end up sounding a bit cliched and actually lose the essence of what a person is trying to say – but I really love this one and think it very nicely visualises how you only need to have complete clarity about the next few steps you’re going to take towards something new and the rest will work itself out as and when it needs to.
Here’s another nice saying about taking that first small step…
You cannot do everything but you can do something. So don’t let what you can’t do, get in the way of what you can.
Despite the fact that this post is all about change, it’s important to remember that life doesn’t always need to be moving. It’s really nice to stand still sometimes, to enjoy what we have, what’s going on right now and everything just the way it is.
But change is nonetheless inevitable. Sometimes it will happen to us. Sometimes we’ll want to go after it, so that we can grow, rebalance or move to find more fulfilment and contentment in our lives.
So, since we’re going to have to face it anyway, why not embrace it for all the opportunities and new experiences it brings. Why not try to work with it and minimise the amount of energy that we expend on worrying about what is yet to come.
And the best way that we can do that is by taking that first little leap.