Last year, home-owners in the US spent $150 billion dollars refurbishing, renovating and rebuilding their houses. What this says to me is that (a) some people like their homes and want to make them even better, and (b) some people don’t like their homes but they don’t have the time, money or bandwidth necessary to move – so they figure they’ll make the best of what they have.
The same could be said of our lives. Many of us are happy with our life, and want to keep working to improve it, while others of us are dissatisfied with big chunks of our life (our work, or our relationships, or our health) and would like to make some major changes.
It seems easier with a house, though – your house is not you, and you can evaluate what’s needed and what’s possible somewhat dispassionately (e.g., “If we do a cosmetic upgrade on the kitchen, it will cost X thousand dollars, and we’ll have to eat out or use a hot plate for a month”). When it comes to our lives, though, we get all tangled up in the fact that it’s ourselves we’re talking about…it feels like trying to do DIY surgery.
So, here are seven things you can do to make it easier to create the life you most want to have:
1. Step back and assess: Start by imagining that you’re someone else observing your life. And imagine that this someone else cares about and wants you to be happy, but also sees you clearly and is wiling to be drop-dead honest. What would he or she say is working in your life, and what would he or she say is not working – is a mess, a hassle, or is clearly making you unhappy? Often, just doing this mental exercise – of observing and assessing your own life as a third party – allows you to see problems you’ve been trying to avoid, or shows you things you’ve been putting up with that you shouldn’t. I did this exercise recently with a client, and when she looked at her life through this third-party lens, it made her realize that her marriage was in a much more fragile place than she’d been seeing. On the other hand, it also helped her see that her accomplishments at work were stellar, and that she hadn’t been acknowledging that, either. She decided she wanted to focus on improving her marriage, while still having fun and doing a great job at work.
2. Pick the most FIT: Some people have the opposite problem: rather than ignoring or not being aware of the aspects of their life they’d like to improve, they see way too many things to change. If that’s the case for you, you might want to use an approach we call “FIT”: feasibility, impact, and timeliness. Here’s how: look at those things you’d like to change, and decide which is the most feasible (you actually can change it – it’s in your control, and you have the needed resources), most impactful (will have the greatest positive effect on your life with the least amount of energy expended) and most timely (you can do it now, and doing it will create a foundation for further change). If you pick the one change that’s the most feasible, impactful and timely of all the possible changes you could make, it’s most likely to be successful. Which will both move your life in a positive direction and reinforce your faith in your own ability to make other changes.
3. Be honest. At this point, once you’ve decided a change you want to make, whether personal or professional, stop and ask yourself, “Knowing me, am I really going to do this?” If the answer is ‘yes,’ great – keep going. If your honest answer back to yourself is ‘no,’ then ask yourself “Why – what will stop me?” Let that rattle around in your head for awhile, and don’t bother beating yourself up for your ‘no’ – just get curious about where it’s coming from. If, after reflection, you find it’s because you don’t think you’re capable of changing – you might want to make some effort to change your self-talk. If, on the other hand, you find you don’t really want to make the change – at least not enough to make the effort required – you can look to see if there’s another FIT change that you’re more motivated to make.
4. Make a ‘first step’ plan. Once you’ve decided to make a change, it’s good to have a plan – but when it comes to personal change (especially personal change that takes you out of your comfort zone in any way), the most important thing is to commit to a specific, doable first step – and then do it. You’ve decided to work on your marriage? The first step could be to have a conversation about it with your spouse, or to get recommendations for two or three excellent couples therapists. You’ve decided to find a new job? One first step: Update your resume. If it’s already up-to-date: Post it on Linkedin. If you’re at the executive level: Get in touch with a recruiter to tell him/her that you’re looking. Doing just one thing can break through inertia and send a signal to yourself that you’re serious about making the change. Often, after taking the first step, it’s much easier to make a plan for what follows.
5. Get support. We’re tribal creatures: it’s more difficult for most of us to go through important shifts on our own. Once you’ve decided to make a change, think about someone (or two someones) who will be a true positive force in this transition: who can help you through the tough spots; who believes in your ability to create a better reality for yourself; who you can count on to offer time and attention when you most need it. Someone, in other words, who loves you and wants the best for you. It’s a bonus if that person can go through the change with you (losing post-holiday weight with a friend or spouse is remarkably easier), or has already been through a similar change him or herself (your friend who left her job last year and has landed a new, better one will not only be supportive, but can offer practical guidance, as well).
6. Parallel process. Sometimes we talk ourselves out of making important positive changes in our lives by telling ourselves that we just don’t have the time to do it. This seems to be especially true if the change is job-related. I can’t tell you how many folks have said to me, “How can I put the needed energy into finding another job when I have to do this job?” The answer: you parallel-process. Parallel processing originally meant creating computers that could do two sets of calculations – two work streams – simultaneously. In our lives, we parallel process every day: there’s the job work stream, the family work stream, the personal time work stream, the hanging with friends work stream, etc. In order to make a change you have to take some of your bandwidth from one of the existing work streams and put it into the making-a-change-work-stream. So for instance, if you’re serious about looking for a new job, you’re probably going to have to cadge some time from your non-job work streams (personal, friends, or family time) over the next few months in order to make that happen. Think about it this way: it’s a short-term sacrifice for a long-term gain.
7. Celebrate every change. Making real change in your life is tough: it takes time, energy, and commitment. It’s easy to get frustrated along the way, to see all the things that aren’t moving in the right direction, rather than the things that are. Get in the habit of acknowledging and rewarding yourself for every step in the right direction. Lost 10 pounds? Get a great massage. Resolved a tough issue with your spouse? Treat yourselves to a special dinner. Your first job interview went really well? Play hooky for a bit afterwards and take a victory lap around the park.
You’re taking steps to ensure you’ll have the life you really want to lead – and that’s something most people don’t do. Congratulations, and good luck.