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How to Change Your Life - a Users Guide

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Credit: credit: Brian Talbot on Flickr cc 2.0

A little over 4 years ago I changed my life completely. Along with my wife, we abandoned the life we had in Australia, along with its security and stability to go to live in France. We sold almost everything we owned. What was left fitted into a couple of packing crates.

So many things changed for us within the space of a month. Our jobs along with our professional networks, the language, our culture, our kid’s school and our friends. Selling up and leaving everything has a romantic image but we hadn’t done our homework and it was a hard slog.

In this article I am going to write about the pros and cons of an incremental change strategy compared to the sudden massive change which we made. Why incremental change wins hands down for a number of reasons and how I put together a simple method to smooth out this process in the future.

The Case for Incremental Change

I often think about new ways to make personal improvements. If I don’t like my job for example. I might feel I am ready to start my own company or, that I prefer to make a career change. So the question arose, how can I put the necessary steps in place to make it happen?

Relocating to France wasn’t the first time we had moved countries. We had made a similar move ten years before. We were both living in London when we decided to relocate to Sydney, Australia. We had the obvious benefits of a shared language as well as a similar culture. By the time we were ready to move we had already made heaps of Australian friends. We also knew where we wanted to live and we knew the job market was similar to that of London. Instead of making the leap of emigrating, we decided we would start off with a one year working holiday visa. This way we could dip our toe in to test the water first.

It wasn’t strategically planned out, but in retrospect it gave that impression. We had sewn the seed for our move years before in London. Gradually we had enjoyed building up our network of friends which created something tangible for us. During our one year visa we found jobs, made local friends and in doing so stripped down the last few barriers to the move. It became inevitable.

Advantages of Incremental Change

Procrastination is a major cause for me to never take any action. Therefore our sink or swim approach to moving to France had its merits. The valuable point learnt from our Sydney move however was that there was no big change at all. The difference came about through small incremental changes over a prolonged time period.

By keeping goals small they were easily achievable. If we failed one, it was no big deal. We had built up lots of small wins so we already had momentum.

There are other benefits too. With the numerous times that I have failed at something there had been a common theme. I have tried to do too much too quickly. Once I spent a year building a product without thinking to test it in the marketplace before it was finished. The process of testing our goals on a daily basis gives the added benefit of having feedback quickly into whether the end goal will work or not.


Create a Process

Having an idea or an end goal in mind is the first step. The important next part is to find a way to scale it down, into a task that can be completed today. It might last just a couple of minutes or even a few seconds. It then needs to be repeated every day until integrated it into your daily routine.

When you keep things simple and increment your goals step by step, you can achieve larger goals rapidly.

  • Take one change at a time

Be careful with this one as the over enthusiastic can fail. One change per month. Only when you have incorporated the first into your daily routine should you try for a second.

  • Start Small

Depending on what you are beginning, start with the minimum possible. 30 minutes is a lot. Reduce to 10 minutes. If you fail, reduce it down to 2.

  • Repeat at the same time of day

Use the same time in each day to do your new task. For example drink a glass of water when you get up at 6am. Go for a 10 minute walk when you have finished lunch.

  • Make a verbal commitment to someone

Tell as many people about your new habit. People important to you. The more people you tell, the more external commitments you make and also the more reason you have to stay on-track.

  • Be accountable

Share your new commitment with someone. Your wife or a close work colleague for example. Try to go a step further and make yourself accountable to them. Force yourself to tell them each time you complete your habit. Tell them about your improvements.

  • Make consequences if you fail

Have some fun with the new habit. Create a system that if you manage to stick to your plan all week without ever missing your goal, you treat yourself. If you manage a month, another treat. On the flip side, make rules which means you will need to pay a penalty if you fail once. Increase the sliding scale of consequences if you miss twice or 3 times in a row.

  • Enjoy it

You have to enjoy the change you are making. If you don’t then you need to find a way to. Test out small alternatives on the same habit. If you can’t find a way, you have to ask yourself that this isn’t for you and that you should find a different change to make which can achieve the same goal. This is effectively testing out as you go.



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