The only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be. Ralph Waldo Emerson
Change is wonderful at first.
You decide to head in a new direction, full of enthusiasm and motivation. You can do this. But after some time you feel lost, stuck even.
Welcome to the messy middle.
You’re still far from the new self you want to be. It would be so easy to slip back into old habits. You’re caught between two forces: push away from the old or pull towards the new.
Push forces are strong at first. You reject what you don’t want, whether that’s a job title or a health status. But the further you get from the old, the weaker that push force is. The pull of the new isn’t strong enough to persuade you to put in the extra effort to become a butterfly.
A caterpillar enters the chrysalis and leaves its previous form behind. In fact it turns into a mass with no form at all. But it is programmed to keep changing towards its goal of being a butterfly, even though to achieve it means enduring a stage of being unrecognisable.
Think of the messy middle as your chrysalis stage.
First look back and remind yourself how far you’ve already come. Celebrate progress because by moving forward you’re already a winner.
Then focus on moving towards your goal at all times. Picture your new self in full colour. Write a statement describing what you’re working for, and look at it regularly. Fix the destination clearly in your mind and let it pull you forward. The closer you get, the stronger the pull will be.
Embrace the growth mindset, which says that you are always capable of developing and learning new things. It’s not that you are ‘just built that way’ or unlucky. Your efforts will get you where you want to be.
Marshal Your Forces
Any change, even a change for the better, is always accompanied by drawbacks and discomforts.
Change requires a great deal of energy. If you try to make too many changes at once, you’ll be overwhelmed and end up making none.
For example, your goal is to lose fifteen pounds. From your current position on the couch, you plan to go to the gym three times a week, jog twice every weekend, give up smoking and alcohol, switch to a paleo diet, and chronicle your transformation on Instagram. And you’re going to do all this in eight weeks, when your vacation is booked.
You’ve just set yourself up to fail. The changes and goals are too far from your current position. Instead, set yourself up to succeed by choosing one small change and making it stick.
The Force of Habits
We live by habits, which are essentially short cuts through life. Habits free up brain space for other things. It takes on average about two months to form a new habit. Chain them together to outwit your natural reluctance to do things differently.
Take the example above. Choose one thing, in this case going to the gym. First, define the best time to go. If it’s after work, pack your bag the night before and put it by the door. You see it as you leave the house. Pick it up, place it in your car.
Choose one night a week and set an alarm on your phone. Tuesday night, pack gym bag. Wednesday night, go to gym after work.
When you’re accustomed to one night a week, add another. Schedule it and repeat until it becomes habit. Then add more sessions until you have the desired set of habits.
Similarly if you want to write, start really small. Block out a sliver of time to write a few words every day. As little as ten minutes and 150 words is enough. When that’s bedded in, add more time and more words.
Don’t overload yourself. Make each new step easy so you can’t fail. Only add bigger challenges when each habit is ingrained.
Build your habits one baby step at a time.
The Force of Time
Change often fails because it all takes longer than we wanted, longer than we bargained for. We are addicted to instant gratification and an easy fix.
Yes, there are people who gave up smoking overnight, or hit their goal weight in six weeks. These are not average results, but outliers. Far better to be realistic about timescales and manage your expectations accordingly.
The Force of Process
Even when you can’t rely on results, you can rely on your process.
It’s hard to get the ball rolling, but if we continue to apply force it will keep rolling. This is why momentum is so valuable. When you’ve done the hard work of overcoming inertia, maintaining forward motion is less effort than starting from scratch again.
When you can’t see your destination, focus on the journey. Put in the miles, put in the hours, keep training until you break through the plateau. In other words, do the work. Forget about results in favour of simply showing up, day after day.
Note any emotional reactions you have — and put them aside. Feelings will slow you down and stand in your way. They exist, but in this context they’re not useful. Do you wonder how you feel about brushing your teeth, or do you just do it? Apply that thinking. Write about feelings in your journal if you want, but the force of process is strictly mechanical.
If you can, do more. More words, cleaner diet, heavier weights. Nothing you do is wasted. The win you need is closer than you think, as long as you keep going.
Eating The Elephant of Life
There are three constants in life…change, choice, and principles.
Life is a succession of changes. Whether we choose the change or not, we have to find a way to live through it and come out better in some way, ready for the next one. There is only one way to approach such a huge task, and that is step by step.
Just as you’d eat an elephant bite by bite and not in one mouthful, you must look at shifts in life as part of a greater whole. There will be times when you’re in deep and can’t see an end to it. You’ll feel overwhelmed and tempted to run back to the safety of your old ways. Know that this feeling is normal, expected, and temporary.
To thrive in the unstable environment called life you must scan the horizon to spot coming challenges, stay flexible and open to learning, and keep faith in your ability.
Most important of all, never give up.
It doesn’t matter how long change takes. Time will pass anyway. What matters is that you’re developing and growing as a human, making the most of your one life.