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Enacting Sustainable Change


I am no expert in change. In fact, some might say I’m a stick in the mud who struggles to make changes. But a few times in my life, including in 2023, I’ve sat down and thought “this is not working”, looked at what was failing me and what needed to be different, and done something about it.


That isn’t easy to do. There have been plenty of other times I’ve sat down, thought “I don’t think this is working” and then started to do something about it but stopped halfway there, did nothing about it at all, or made one dramatic and unsustainable change and no others. 


Effecting sustainable change requires a few key cornerstones so that the structure — your life — that you are building stands firm. Here are some I have found to be critical.



  • You have to be ready


It’s frustrating, but sometimes you just are not ready for major change. Maturity and knowledge can be barriers, but in my experience the most common barrier is depression, which is a reason to change but also something that makes it nearly impossible to do so. There are times when your headspace just gets in the way - when you imagine “this is what I’m going to do” one day, but the next day you are just too exhausted to follow up on it.


These are times to be gentle with yourself. Accept your limits, lower your expectations of change, and be patient. I spent about three years frustrated that every project I started, every new direction I tried to take, ended up with me sitting on the couch with a long list of long unanswered emails piling up. At least one major opportunity passed me by just because I couldn’t bring myself to do the necessary work. And they do say that opportunities often do not come twice — but there is also a balance. At that point, understanding where I was at in my life and the events that had led me to such a state of ennui, I gave myself grace. I think if I’d pushed, I not only would have ended up back on the couch again, but possibly for longer. Understand when it is the wrong time, and let that time pass.


  • Change in small ways first


I’m prone to want big, dramatic changes. I love a silver bullet solution and I’m a sucker for any “this one trick will” marketing scheme. But life doesn’t work that way. To change your whole life — your career direction, your financial situation, your fitness — change some small part of your life first. Don’t say “this year, I am going to write the novel!”. Say this year, I am going to sit down and write for fifteen minutes a day. At the end of the year, you might have a novel. The other way is too easy to put off and avoid, because it is too big to do at one sitting. There’s no accountability on a goal of that size. 


Plus, starting small builds habits. So if you want to change your life in big ways, start with a few small habits that make you into a different person, a person who sees things a little differently or focuses on different elements of life. When I started writing more, I also became someone who looked at things with more curiosity, always interested in the story and the story behind the story, instead of just letting things go past me. This curiosity changes how I view everything, it informs my writing but it also informs how I live my life.



  • Create a new setting if possible


It’s very hard to build new habits and break old ones if you’re in the same routine. Creating a new setting isn’t always possible, if you’re thinking of a new setting meaning a big move or another state. But you can tweak a setting without making a dramatic change. Use moments of minor or major change — getting a new car or even a new coffee maker — to inspire change because your routine will be less set for a few days. Change the route you drive to work. Make little changes that freshen your brain and allow it to be more flexible when it comes to doing new things, or not doing old ones.


An example here could be the breaking of the habit of smoking. You have a cigarette every time you drive to work. Take a different route to work. It won't eliminate the cravings, but it will change your relationship to the routine enough for you notice and not just repeat the bad habit automatically.


  • Connect habit changes to routine


When you can’t create a new setting, use the old routine to build a new one. We are much more likely to learn new habits if we attach them to existing ones. For example, I was able to build running into my routine partly by attaching it to morning chores. Every day I’d get up to feed the animals and let them out, and then go for a short run. I did the first part every day already (had for years), so adding a little run was easy. Today, there are less chores but it’s built into me that I get up and run every day.


Not only does this help your brain adjust to a new habit, it also makes it easier to block time. If I had not attached running to chores, I would be worried I didn’t have the time to go for a long run amid all of my other daily tasks. But I attached it to something I was already doing, so it feels like it is taking no extra time at all.



  • Focus on the little picture, but know what your big goals are


It’s important to have goals that can be achieved, or you’ll constantly be disappointed. Big changes are all about small changes, habit changes, routine changes. Want to write that great novel? The first goal is making time to write every day. The second goal might be getting a story published. Within those are a change in daily routine and a new habit formed, and a change in how you look at the literary world (learning how to pitch a piece, selecting a place you hope will publish your piece). Or, want to run a 10k? Start by building running every day into your routine. Then start running further, running faster. Don’t just sign up for a 10k and hope for the best.


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Change is part of being human, and yet it is so difficult for most if not all of us. It’s hard not the daunted by the prospect of change, to be uncomfortable with shifting routines, and to be afraid of what is being left behind. Slow, steady steps get the job done. Knowing yourself and understanding what you are ready for prepare you to make changes. Just like the new skills or habits you’re trying to learn, change takes practice.

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