How to Make Small Changes that Stick

Today my daughter said, “Mom, I listen to what you say. I read your blog posts. But then I try to make changes and then I forget.”

Sounds really familiar, doesn’t it? I think many of us struggle with this same problem. 

Little changes are powerful. Just making small changes to your diet such as eating smaller portions or cutting out processed foods, can add up to big benefits. Losing just one or two pounds a week can, over time, result in enough weight loss to give you better sleep, more energy, and more self-confidence. It’s just hard to remember to do those small things every day.

You might want to help your attitude at work by slowing down, making eye contact with your patients, or smiling when you answer the phone. Maybe you want to apply The 3 Question Rule. Or, as mentioned earlier, you are ready to improve how you eat.

How can you be intentional on a daily basis and not forget to do these things? The truth is that it’s hard to squeeze something new into old patterns. 

Set Yourself Up for Success

When you lay down the mental groundwork for change, you’ll see that change is much easier. I like to reserve at least ten minutes in the morning to visualize the changes I would like to make that day. If that doesn’t work for you, you can also write down what you’d like to change- like journaling with intention.

For example, if I want to remember to take a breath and smile when I answer the phone, I would use my morning visualizing time to picture myself at work answering the phone with a smile on my face. Get as clear a picture as you can. Hear the phone ringing, see your face smiling, hear the happy tone in your voice. 

If you choose to write instead, you can take pen to paper and describe yourself answering the phone. You could write something like this: “When the phone rings, I take a breath, smile gently, and answer it. I’m so glad that people are calling me. I’m happy to help my patients.”

Whether you are visualizing or writing, the idea is to imagine the change before it happens. Your brain doesn’t know the difference between reality and imagination. So every time you imagine something, it is like an experience to your brain. Every new experience solidifies the new habit. 

Change in the Moment

When you’re going about your busy workday, it’s easy to forget that you’re trying to do something differently. Not only that, but when you’re busy, a change, even a small one, seems like just one more thing to do. Here is where my best friend in forming new habits, the Post-it note comes to the rescue. 

When I was practicing the 3 Question Rule, I would often forget and just answer the question. Then I would get mad at myself. So, I took a post-it note and put a “Q” on it, and stuck it on my computer at work. No one else noticed it, but that “Q” would catch my eye when I answered the phone and I would remember to handle the call in a new way. You could even put a sticker with the letter “Q” on it on the phone. 

My grandfather used to put a rubber band around his wrist. He said that it helped him remember to do his errands for the day. In honor of my grandfather, for three months in 2016, I put a rubber band on my left wrist. It reminded me that if I don’t have anything nice to say, I shouldn’t say anything at all. That simple thing helped me break a bad habit of complaining. 

There’s nothing wrong with having more than one reminder, or more than one post-it note, for that matter. During the winter of 2014, I must have had twelve post-it notes around the house- three on the front door, three on the back door, and three on my bathroom mirror.

The Recap

Let’s say it’s the end of the workday. You really tried to put the changes you want to make into practice. In the car, before you drive home or in the driveway before you get out of the car, quickly go over in your mind, how you did that day. For example, if you remembered to say good morning and make eye-contact with your patients, pick one really nice moment you had and relive it briefly. Remember what it felt like to have a connection with another human being. Relive a few successful moments. For the losses, remember what Wayne Gretsky said, “You miss every shot you don’t take,” and just let it go. Don’t relive those as that won’t help you establish a new habit. It will only make you hesitant to continue. 

Here’s another tip- have an “Ally in Change”, as I like to call it- someone that will hold you accountable. Maybe your spouse, one of your kids, or a friend. Have an agreement with this person that you are going to review your progress with them every day or every week. It doesn’t have to take long. You can do the same for them. It’s great when someone has your back when you’re trying to do better. They congratulate you when you have success and encourage you when you fail. 

Final Thoughts

A student of mine once said, “I’m off to change the world!” But the truth is you can’t change THE world, but you can change your little corner of the world. It’s much easier to proclaim you will change the world because you’re immediately off the hook. It’s impossible to change the entirety of the planet in one lifetime. 

However, it is entirely possible to change your world. I told this student that if he wanted to change the world, he had to practice by changing his immediate surroundings. In order to do that, he has to change himself. I told him if he could commit to making small positive changes every day, he would have a happy and healthy life. I wish that for him. I wish that for you, too. 

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