Making big changes is scary, but doesn’t have to be. In this episode, I discuss my formula for taking control and making big changes through finding the right motivation, setting the right goals, and taking small steps. Whether you want to lose weight, improve your health, build better relationships, you can apply this simple, but powerful formula to take control and make big changes in your life.
(Note: The title of this episode is borrowed from a line in Jimmy Buffett’s song, Cheeseburger in Paradise. )
The Small Wins Strategy of Change: https://www.livewellandflourish.com/the-power-of-small-things-the-small-wins-strategy-of-change/
Practice, Habit, and Being: https://www.livewellandflourish.com/practice-habit-and-being/
Live Well and Flourish website: https://www.livewellandflourish.com/
The theme music for Live Well and Flourish was written by Hazel Crossler, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Production assistant - Paul Robert
Making big changes is scary, but doesn’t have to be. In this episode, I discuss my formula for taking control and making big changes through finding the right motivation, setting the right goals, and taking small steps.
Welcome to Live Well and Flourish, where I help you understand what it means to live a flourishing life. I'm your host, Craig Van Slyke. If you're ready to think beyond material and external success, if you're ready to take control of who you are and the kind of life you live, if you're ready to flourish, this is the podcast for you.
Twice in my life I’ve lost significant amounts of weight. No, I’m not a yo-yo dieter, the two times were over 30 years apart. After I graduated from high school, I stopped playing sports, started drinking beer, and as a result put on over 100 pounds. I was a stout lad, well over 300 pounds. When I was pushing 30 years old a doctor told me, “You’re young, so you can get away with this weight, but once you hit 30, it’s going to start taking years off your life.” That was a wake-up call and strong motivation for changing things. I had tried getting into shape the year before. Joined the local YMCA and went once. So, I knew I needed a different approach. I thought about what I could do, and I decided I could give up potato chips (and other chip-like products … I’m looking at you Cheetos). I also started walking a couple of times a week. These small changes gave me the confidence to move on to other small, positive changes. The end result was that I lost over 100 pounds and in the process built habits that serve me to this day. (Sorry, long-time listeners may find this story familiar, sorry about that.)
Fast-forward 30 years or so, and I moved to Louisiana. Lord, the food is so good here! Good tasting, but maybe not so good for you. Gradually, I put on some weight … well, “some” might be an understatement. This really hit home when I saw a picture of me on Facebook. Let’s just say it was not flattering. So, another wakeup call. At the beginning of 2022, I decided to make some changes. I downloaded a calorie tracking app, and started keeping track of what I ate. By the end of the year, I had lost about 20% of my body weight, and also substantially improved my health and fitness.
My point in telling you these stories is not to brag, or even to talk about weight loss. These stories provide some interesting insights into how to make changes. There’s a pretty straightforward, deceptively simple formula that can be used to make some pretty large changes in your life. The formula is:
Motivation + Right Goals + Small Steps = Big Changes
Let’s talk about each of these.
Change is unlikely if you aren’t motivated. It’s just that simple. No motivations means no intentional change. (You might change unintentionally, but often that is not a good thing.) The picture of me on Facebook was the trigger for my motivation. It was a bit of a metaphorical slap in the back of the head. But the real motivation was thinking about my younger brother, Glenn, who died of a heart attack in his mid 50s. My grandfather also died of a massive heart attack and my father underwent quadruple bypass surgery. My mother and grandmother died from huge strokes. So, I need to watch my health pretty carefully. The picture was the trigger, but improving my health was the motivation. Find your motivation before undertaking the big change. Any significant change is going to run into roadblocks, it’s pretty much inevitable. When you hit those roadblocks, a strong motivator will keep you on your path.
The next part of the equation is having the right goals. We’ll borrow from the Stoics here. The key to setting the right goals is to remember that some things are under your control and some things are not. How does this relate to goals? Well, this gets a little tricky, so I’m going to distinguish between two types of goals, behavioral goals and outcome goals. To make this easier, I’ll call behavioral goals goals and outcome goals targets. A behavioral goal, as the name implies, is some goal related to your behavior. Eating carrots as a snack instead of chips is a behavioral goal. So is having daily calorie or exercise goals. For example, my goal was to have a 500 calorie deficit each day. Such goals are directly related to your actions. Eat carrots, not chips. Hit the treadmill. For the most part, you can control your caloric intake and exercise through your behaviors. Outcome goals, or targets … are related to your actions but less directly. Consider a weight loss target. Whether (and when) you hit your target is not totally under your control, although your actions certainly can have an impact. The trick here is to set a reasonable target, then set specific behavioral goals that will help you move towards the target. But don’t get upset and give up if your progress towards the target takes longer than you’d like, or if there are setbacks along the way. Just keep your focus on your behavioral goals. Keep doing the right things, and you’re much more likely to achieve your target.
One last word about targets. I know that many people recommend SMART goals (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound) (there are other versions), be careful about the time-bound part. Suppose you set a target of losing 20 pounds in five months, and you only lose 15 in that time period. That might be seen as a failure, but the five months time frame is aspirational, not a signal of failure. After all, you still lost a bunch of weight. Just keep going. Does it really matter if it takes six months instead of five?
Change takes time. As the saying goes, Rome wasn’t built in a day. To me, the best way to undertake big change is in small steps. Small steps, done repeatedly, can build habits of action and habits of mind that eventually lead to transformational change. I recommend focusing on habits, good and bad. Your habits can be a force for good or they can be a force for evil. Habitual behaviors form a sort of inertia that tends to keep you on a certain track, regardless of whether that track is positive or negative. So, when you want to change, it’s a good idea to examine your habits.
It’s likely that there are some habits that will get in the way of your change. Work on breaking these. One effective way to do this is to replace a bad habit with a good habit. For example, if you normally have cookies while watching TV in the evening, try having an apple or carrots (my favorite) instead. Over time, the healthy habit will replace the unhealthy habit. But don’t try to take on too much at one time. Your habits took a long time to build, and it will take some time to change them.
Not taking on too much is solid advice in general. Since we’re just into a new year, I guarantee you that lots of people will hit the gym every day for the next week or two, then get sore and tired and give it up, wasting yet another gym membership. (Don’t ask me how I know this.) It would be much better for these folks to start going a couple of days a week, then, over time, increasing the frequency.
Another advantage to taking small steps is that they allow for mid-course correction. Whatever change you’re trying to accomplish, it’s likely that things won’t always go according to plan. Some things might not work out, or maybe you encounter some unanticipated obstacles. By taking your change project in small steps, you’ll be likely to find ways around the obstacles or to replace something that didn’t work with something that does.
If you wanna hear more about this idea, check out my episode on the Small Wins Strategy (I'll put a link in the show notes).
Finally, the small steps can build a record of achievement, which will build your confidence. Then every time you hit your behavioral goals, you provide evidence that you can hit that goal, which increases your confidence, and will also provide a store of resilience when you encounter a roadblock. Success breeds confidence, which leads to future success, further increasing confidence in an ongoing virtuous cycle of control and flourishing.
Remember, like good barbecue, change is best done low and slow; you can’t rush it. Now, I won’t get into the sauce-no sauce debate on barbecue.
Before getting into three things you can do this week to start yourself down the path to positive change, I want to emphasize the importance of self-compassion in bringing about change. As I've said a couple of times already, the road to your big change will get bumpy. When this happens, don’t get down on yourself. Life is unpredictable. So, you slipped up. It happens and once it’s done, you can’t do a thing about it. The slip is in the past. Learn from it and move on. Don’t waste time and energy worrying about something you can’t change.
As an aside, my wife Tracy is really good at this when she cooks. She’s an awesome cook, by the way. When she tries a new recipe and it doesn’t work out (which doesn’t happen often), she doesn’t get upset. She thinks about what she needs to change, maybe adding a bit of this or that, substituting an ingredient, leaving it in the oven a little longer … whatever. Then she tries her modified recipe, and virtually always nails it by the second try. My favorite was when she was making something that called for spinach, and having none on hand, substituted bacon. God I love that woman!
OK, now I’m hungry so let’s move on to the three things.
The first thing to do is to think about what you might want to change about your life. This needn’t be a huge thing. Maybe you just want to read more, or listen to more educational podcasts (hint, hint). Whatever it is, write it down. Don’t make a list, just write down one change you want to make. Remember if you focus on everything, you focus on nothing.
Once you’ve identified the change you want to make, write down a target. Remember, this is just a target. Maybe your target is to read two books a month or to lose ten pounds. Write it down. Then, identify behavioral goals that will move you towards the target. Be sure that your goals are under your control. You might want to read for 30 minutes in the morning, and 30 minutes at night. It’s OK to create several behavioral goals, but don’t try to work on all of them at the same time. Pick one or two. Build those behaviors into habits, and then work on the next one. Think of these as little experiments. Some will work out, some won’t. When one doesn’t, drop that goal and replace it with another little experiment.
Finally, listen to two previous episodes of Live Well and Flourish, the small wins episode I mentioned earlier, and the episode on practice, habit, and being. Both are available at LiveWellAndFlourish.com, and, of course, there are links in the show notes.
Well, that’s it for now. Our closing quote comes from Winston Churchill, “To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.”
Until next time, be well my friends.
I produce Live Well and Flourish because of my dedication to helping others live excellent lives. I don't accept sponsorships and I don't want your money. The only thing I want is to help you and others flourish. If you've received some value from this episode, please share it with someone that might also benefit from listening. The best way to do that is to direct them to livewellandflourish.com
Until next time.