10 Critical Steps to Sustainable Life Change

As much as we say we want a life change, to become better people, to improve ourselves, we often face change kicking and screaming. It’s one thing to envision yourself as slim, trim, and healthy, but quite another to put on your running shoes and break a sweat.

Even when we are highly motivated or inspired, change is hard. It is hard to initiate it, and it is hard when it’s thrust upon us. We are creatures of comfort, and every change (even small changes) requires some level of physical, mental, or psychological discomfort.

This threat of discomfort keeps us trapped in a cycle of desire and failure. We want to be better people, but we can’t manage to sustain the actions to get there. It takes a toll on our self-esteem. The more times we try and fail, the more like failures we feel. Then we lose hope of ever succeeding, so we stop trying.

Most of the time we view change as a giant leap from where we are now to the final place we want to be. We try to attack change like an ant pushing a bowling ball uphill. But if you view change this way, you are bound to fail.

Change is hard because most of us go about it in the wrong way. We don’t know why we keep failing. We think it has to do with personal weakness. But most of the time, it doesn’t. It has to do with a lack of knowledge.

What Is Change?

Change is nothing more than the formation of a series of habits. Look at your life as it is right now. Most of what you do, what you think, and how you behave is habitual.

  • You get up in the morning and go through the same routines.
  • You go to work and follow generally the same schedule.
  • You interact with and react to people in the same ways.
  • You come home and follow the same routines for dinner, relaxation, and bedtime.

Yes, there are small differences in your routine, but rarely do you insert some sustained, on-going activity or new way of doing something.

You have developed the patterns of your daily habits over many years. Some you carried from childhood, and others you picked up along the way. But most of your daily habits have been repeated enough times that your brain circuitry is entrenched in these behaviors.

Rewire Your Brain

To change the behaviors, you must rewire your brain. And rewiring your brain takes practice, patience, and the knowledge of how to do it.

In my work as a personal coach and teaching The Habit Course (with my partners Leo Babauta and Katie Tallo), I work with people on a simple method for making sustainable life change. This is a method that has been tested and well-researched. If you follow it, you can make sustainable life change.

Here are the steps:

  1. Plan and prepare. You can’t just jump into a new behavior without preparation. You would be setting yourself up for failure right off the bat. You must get yourself mentally, physically, emotionally, and practically ready and ripe to be successful. This includes creating a vision for yourself of the outcome, and planning a system of triggers, accountability, support, and rewards.
  2. Start really, really small. Every new habit is comprised of many smaller habits. For example, taking up running could involve getting up earlier, putting on your running clothes, stretching, etc. Break down each new habit into its  smallest parts, and begin with just one of those small parts as your first change.
  3. Stick to 5 minutes. When you begin this small new habit, do it for 5 minutes only during the first 2 weeks. This will feel very easy (especially for some small habits), but it begins the process of retraining your brain to accept this new behavior. This 5 minute rule is critical to your success, so don’t break it!
  4. Find a trigger. A trigger is an established habit or action that you can use to “trigger” your memory to perform your new habit. You want to perform your new habit immediately after the trigger. For example, you might practice your new habit of meditation immediately after the trigger of brushing your teeth (an established habit). The trigger must be something that is firmly established for you.
  5. Set up accountability. Most of us don’t tell people when we try to change just in case we fail. We don’t want to be embarrassed. But actually telling people is key to your success. You want to find a place to report your daily habit work, whether it’s through social media, on a forum, or by email to a group of friends. When you know someone is counting on you, you will try harder.
  6. Acknowledge success. Set up a reward system for yourself that immediately follows the new habit. You have to plan a reward system to keep your motivation and positivity at a high level. Gold stars, a piece of chocolate, a nap, anything that feels like a reward will work to reinforce your habit. Our students in the Habit Course loved the gold stars!
  7. Create a support system. Communicate with those close to you about your plans for life change, and get their buy-in and support. If you don’t,  you are setting yourself up for trouble. If your new habit disrupts the lives of others, and you haven’t communicated with them or gotten their support, they may sabotage your efforts.
  8. Plan for disruptions. During the planning phase of your life change, you create a “disruption contingency plan.” Unexpected things will happen. You may get sick. You might have to travel. You may need to change the time or place for your habit. Don’t allow these events to be an excuse for interrupting your change work. Plan for them in advance so you aren’t blindsided by the unexpected.
  9. Increase your time slowly. Be sure that your new habit is fully automatic before you increase the time past 5 minutes. If you have missed more than a day or two during the first two weeks, then add another week of practicing for 5 minutes only. Once it feels automatic, increase to 10 minutes. Keep adding time as the change feels automatic.
  10. One change at a time. Tackle only one new change in your life at a time. It can take 4-8 weeks for a new habit to be fully automatic. The more difficult the habit, the longer it will take. Don’t begin another one until you have to first one firmly established.

You probably have something on your mind right now that you’ve wanted to incorporate in your life. Maybe exercise. Or eating healthy. Or starting a project. Or meditating. Whatever it is, if you follow the method outlined above, you will have the key to sustainable life change.

Photo by jenny downing

Barrie Davenport

Barrie Davenport is a life passion coach, author, and founder of BarrieDavenport.com, a site devoted to helping people uncover and live their life passions. Download her free guide, The Passion Myths: 6 Lies Keeping You from Uncovering Your Life Passion.

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35 Comments

  1. What a great post! It’s so tempting to skip these steps by going for the “big” change right away. But everyone who has given up on a New Year’s resolution after two days knows that you’re onto something here. Thank you for these powerful reminders.

    Jeff

    Reply
    • Hi Jeff,

      I’m so glad you liked the post. These actions really do work. We have taught several classes on habit formation using these steps, and people are successful at making change for the long term. Starting small and sticking to 5 minutes in the beginning are THE most important steps on the list. This keeps you from feeling overwhelmed.

      Reply
  2. Thanks so much for your post! I’ve come across inspirational information like this before but it’s hard to follow through because I don’t know what I’m living for. I feel like it good to change some habits but for what reason? If I had something to look forward to, I might stay on course, but nowadays I don’t even bother because there’s no point.

    Reply
    • Oh Velina. I am so sorry to hear you say this. I don’t know your circumstances, but even when it seems dire, there is always something to live for. Live for hope. Live for the dream you have of a better future. Please don’t give up. You never know how life can change. Do what you can to make things better for yourself even in very small ways. I am sending positive and loving thoughts your way.

      Reply
  3. Thankyou Barrie,
    These steps will certainly go a long way to sustaining the change that one wants
    be good to yourself
    David

    Reply
  4. Barrie

    I agree 100% that leaving the comfort zone is key. I feel that the reason we’re scared to leave the comfort zone is how unrealistic our expectations are. It’s exactly like you wrote – we feel like failures. But why do we feel like failures? Only because we set our sights too high, too early.

    That’s why I really like your approach of doing 1 thing at a time and going slow (but steady). I’ve found this to work well with everything in my life – from staying fit to meditation to social skills.

    I was also watching Iron Lady (the Marg. Thatcher bio) the other day and it had a great quote that I think has a place here:

    “Watch your thoughts, for they become words.
    Watch your words, for they become actions.
    Watch your actions, for they become habits.
    Watch your habits, for they become character.
    Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.”

    1 step at a time; 1 day at a time. That’s the way forward. Thanks for the great post.

    Reply
    • Hi George,
      Very well-stated — we do set our sites too high, too early. We don’t give our brains time to assimilate all of the small changes that go with a big change. I love the quote. Thank you for sharing it.

      Reply
    • George

      Why do we feel like failures? I believe that as individuals in our present society it is far easier to be a failure than a success. We have come to expect to be failures and in a perverse way, we actually want to fail. Or at least that is what I perceive of the masses.

      Its blogs like this and comments like yours that perhaps allow the 1 % of us that do not wish to be failures to reach out and strive for success.

      jb

      Reply
      • Hi John,
        I don’t think we want to be failures. I think many don’t know how to be successes. They don’t have the tools. And some people have many obstacles to overcome. Sometimes success if frightening to people. But people who wallow in failure generally do that because they are so disappointed at not being successful.

        Reply
  5. Great article. It inspires a great deal.
    First of all just knowing the fact that it’s possible makes a huge difference. If one is convinced in his/her mind that the change WILL eventually come, then it’s just a matter of time and consistency.

    I love how you make things look so easy with these steps. And the truth is- they are. They are easy, we just have to be consistent. As creatures of comfort as you said, realizing that we must break the daily routine, and the comfort of the familiar is crucial I guess. But I love how these steps make that transition not just easier, but making us feel like it’s quite normal.

    Will try this for sure :)

    Reply
    • I’m so glad you found it useful Slavko. In theory, things seem easier than the are in practice! That’s why making the first steps really, really easy and sticking to 5 minutes is critical to success in making change happen. It’s like dipping your toe in cold water!

      Reply
  6. This is a great post! It reminds me so much of the Flylady theory for getting your life and household under control. (www.flylady.net – if you’re not familiar with her). It’s all about building the small changes into your life, until they become habits. It’s so much easier when you incorporate these changes into your life a little bit at a time, but I need constant reminders like yours. Thank you!

    p.s. I’m sharing your blog post with Flylady!

    Reply
    • Hi Sue,
      It’s funny you mention the Flylady. Leo Babauta, who is my partner with the Habit Course, follows her. She was a big inspiration to him too. Thank you for your kind comments and for sharing the post with her.

      Reply
  7. This is great Barrie. I’ve been studying habits, change and self-mastery for a couple years, and every reputable book or research study I’ve seen pretty much echoes everything you wrote above.

    Really impressed and happy to see this technology making it’s way into the personal development community.

    Kudos to you Leo and Katie.

    Reply
  8. Wonderful article and I love change and I definitely embrace it as it comes. I put my things in storage about 3 years ago and now I move from city to city. I’m in my current city for almost year now and it’s all good. I did it initially to give up fear of being alone and truly learn who I was and now because of all the change – I embrace the change.

    Being in the comfort zone is not very comfortable for me.

    Here’s to change,
    Nancy

    Reply
      • I love the way you put that – very thoughtful response to my comment – YES absolutely the status quo is so much more threatening then change.

        Reply
  9. Excellent post and so very valuable, expecially now. I think everyone can find value in at least experimenting with this 10 step program. . .I certain found value in it. Thank you.

    Reply
  10. Excellent post, Barrie. Particularly like your emphasis on “one change at a time.” Having embarked on many unsuccessful self-improvement programs, dating back to about the time I was 8, I’ve found that trying to make several changes at once just doesn’t work. Then I read Tony Schwartz’s book The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working. It explained that brain capacity for making behavioral changes is pretty limited — we exhaust it when we try to change too many things at once. That didn’t make it easier to change — but did make it easier to understand why it’s tough. Thanks for this great step-by-step guide.

    Reply
    • Hi Stephen,
      I’m glad you have discovered that change takes patience and some amount of skill. But that’s true of just about anything! These small steps are the essence of any sort of learning.

      Reply
  11. What a great post, Barrie! Thank you!

    I know EXACTLY what habit I have been wanting to form but just haven’t gotten started on… a great deal of it I think is because I am overwhelmed by the “finished” size of the habit. Your post has given me a way to approach it with a less overwhelming process and I’m hopeful this will be the path I need to succeed!

    Of course, now I am thinking of OTHER habits I really want to form and haven’t for a multitude of reasons (excuses)… that this technique could work with…

    So suppose I want to form 3 new habits. I’m thinking I should go through this process for one habit at a time until each of them is in place? Yes?

    Thanks again for your post… VERY helpful in theory at this point – and I’ll be sure to share the results when they are actually accomplished! :o)

    Reply
    • Hi Anne-Marie,

      I’m so glad you liked it. Yes, one habit at a time. And wait until each habit is firmly established before beginning another.

      Reply
  12. Excellent advice. Thanks for sharing this with us. http:ahungrylife.com

    Reply
  13. i liked the article a lot its very well organized
    if we were to really apply those 10 steps in order then certainly our lives are going to change to the better
    thanks :)

    Reply
  14. i liked the article a lot
    its very well organized
    if we were to really apply those 10 steps in order then certainly our lives are going to change to the better
    thanks :)

    Reply
  15. I was looking for some guidance and I suppose a modicum of moral support when I found your online article. I have already planned, attempted and/or accomplished many of the steps you’ve outlined but major changes are hard, especially when what we seek seems a bit crazy by other’s standards. Leaving a well-paying job to move from the midwest to California is so compelling I’m almost on automatic. I have a good amount of time though I need to stay en pointe but I am committed to doing this. Alone, yes, and in my late fifties but experience has taught me we sometimes need to get far from our comfort zone(s) to really feel alive and empowered. At times these experiences are all that keep me moving forward. Thank you again for unknowingly easing my troubled mind a bit and allowing me to breathe deeply and continue.

    Reply
  16. What if I start more than one change at the same time? Because I need to… They involve mental, physical, economical, academical and even spiritual changes. I’ve made a plan and it doesn’t seem overwhelming (except for the mental part and maybe the physical), but I’ve read in many articles that it’s recommended to get started with just one. But I can’t do that, because those changes are like seriously needed :/ What would you recommend me? Thanks, and great article!!

    Reply
  17. Thanks, I needed this message.Life can be like a still body of water collecting litter, disease and smell. Be a river moving, creating beauty and seeing beauty on this journey of life.

    Reply

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