dirtSimple.orgwhat stands in the way, becomes the way

How to Change Your Life

Can people really change?  We tend to assume that circumstances change easily and often, but that people change rarely, slowly, and with great difficulty.  But these assumptions are wrong.

The truth is that people can change easily and instantly.  The real problem is that they also change back just as easily! 

Meanwhile, the circumstances of our lives change slowly in comparison.  If you’re fifty pounds overweight, and you just changed your eating habits, it’s going to take a while before the change in your habits shows up on your body.  And if you decide that your new habits aren’t helping, you just might change them back! Meanwhile, your friends are telling themselves, “Yep, like I always say, people just don’t change.”

Hogwash!  People do change.  But there’s a time lag before the changes show up in their lives, and in the meantime, they can also change back!

So if you want to change your life, you need to do three things:

  • Focus on changing your actions, not your circumstances
  • Accept and plan for your weaknesses, instead of toughing it out
  • Periodically review your results to fine-tune or re-think your approach if needed

I could probably write a book on each of these three things, especially the second one.  And in fact, I’m working on a course (called Get Ready to Change) that will include quite a few lessons on these subjects.  For today, however, I’m going to just hit a few highlights from the first topic above.

Change Your Actions, Not Your Circumstances

Focusing on results is a losing game in two ways.  First, it’s discouraging, because you’re not going to lose fifty pounds in a day. You’re probably not going to clean years of trash accumulation from your garage or house in an hour or two.  Really worthwhile changes take time.

Second, focusing on results makes you want to take rash shortcuts.  Shortcuts like using diet pills when you should be changing your eating and exercise habits, or like indulging in a fit of “spring cleaning” that sucks up all your time and still doesn’t get the job done.  These intensive efforts throw your life out of balance: they use up all your focus and willpower long before you can “finish” the results you want, and do nothing to fix the real problem: a lack of positive habits in the relevant area.

So the key question to ask is this: what habits do I need, in order to have the results I want as a natural consequence?  Remember, life is every moment.  The conditions you have in your life are the result of the choices you make – and the actions you take – in every moment.  Take care of your habits now, and they’ll take care of you later.

But don’t get the wrong idea: you don’t need to instantly start working out for an hour a day or do marathon housecleaning sessions every weekend.  What you want to do is work with the smallest possible actions first.  Substitute one food.  Pick up or put away one thing.  Why?  Because this will actually build a habit faster than more intensive efforts will!

Here’s the thing: a habit is something you do automatically.  To do it automatically, it has to be unconscious.  So, you have to teach your unconscious mind to do it.  That means it has to be simple.

Now, I’m not saying you can’t teach your unconscious to do complex things.  It’s just that complex things are made of simple pieces.

The Slow, Fast Way

Consider house-cleaning, for example.  Over the last week or two, I’ve been working on developing habits to keep the house neat.  One of those habits is just throwing away tissues that didn’t quite make it to the trash can when I threw them in that direction.  Another habit is picking up individual dishes that Leslie or I have left in other parts of the house, and taking them to the kitchen.  Another one is processing a few pieces of unopened mail each day.

These are all very simple habits.  Collectively, they make up a small portion of the total number of habits that I will need in order to eventually keep the house as nice as I would like it to be.  It will probably take a considerable amount of time to develop all the necessary habits.  However, I’m already starting to notice improvements in the condition of the house, and that’s a strong positive reinforcement for the habits.

Now, let’s contrast that with what I used to do.  I used to go on periodic cleaning binges, trying to clean a particular area of the house.  I would spend an awful lot of time and conscious effort, and in the end, I would have a clean room or rooms…  which would within a week or two be well on its way to looking the same as it did before!  So I invested a lot of focused effort and got a result, but not a change in my ongoing actions.

You see, focus is a limited resource.  It’s almost as if we are all handed a certain number of “focus points” each day that we can choose to spend as we wish.  Anything that requires conscious attention uses up focus points, so just living your normal life uses up most of your focus.  If you then want to also change something in your life, you will need to borrow or steal the necessary focus points from other things.

But if you try to make too big of a change in too short a period of time, you won’t have enough focus left over for living your normal life.  Soon, other things in your life will demand your attention again, and since you feel like you at least “made some progress” with your big push at change, it won’t seem quite so important to keep pushing your new change forward.  Surely, you think, you can let it go for a day or two…

And that, of course, is where the backsliding starts.

If You Have To Think, It’s Still Too Hard

Luckily, the cleaning habits I’m now developing take up only a few moments’ attention here and there.  In fact, they’re so simple that they scarcely use my attention at all.  Whenever I find myself having to think about how I should tackle a cleaning task, I just stop right there, making a mental note to maybe develop another habit at another time.

I don’t allow myself to get caught up in achieving the results of cleaning, because my goal is to develop the habits of cleaning.  I know that at some point, it’ll become obvious what to do with the task that I have a question about, and I’ll see what new habit(s) I need to cultivate.  In the meantime, I don’t let it distract me from accomplishing the things I already know how to do.

This is very different from some previous efforts I’ve made at doing the same thing.  Back when I wrote Falling Behind, Rising Above, I tried to develop a couple of cleaning habits, but they were more complex.  For example, I tried to create a habit of “leaving each area nicer than it was when I arrived”.

This worked okay for a short period, but it soon fell apart because of the degree of conscious attention it required.  After I had made the most obvious improvements in a particular area of the house, I had to start thinking too much to figure out what else I could do to “leave it nicer”.

So now, I’ve made the process much simpler.  I only add new habits when it becomes obvious to me that they are needed, and I can develop a purely mechanical approach to them. That way, I don’t use up too many of my day’s “focus points” on developing the habit, because I don’t have to switch my focus to cleaning.

As time goes on, I do expect my behavior to become more complex, as a natural outgrowth of developing these individual habits.  Because I don’t have to think about them, my brain will be free to combine them in interesting and surprising ways.  Remember: the brain is a parallel processor, so every mental program you create is potentially capable of running at the same time.  I can, for example, pick up different kinds of things with both hands, or put a dish in the sink with one hand while wiping down the counter with another.  My brain is free to activate two or more of my habits, if they are triggered at more-or-less the same time.

But notice that this kind of behavioral complexity is possible only because I’m not thinking about it.  If I had to actually stop and think about it consciously, I’d be slowing things down because I can only think about one thing at a time.  I would spend more time planning the move to pick things up with both hands, than I would actually spend doing it in the automatic case.  Plus I’d have to think of every possible combination, and manage all the details.  Why do all that when I have a brain that can do it for me?

So by training myself to act without thinking, I make it possible to excel in ways that would not otherwise be possible.  And at the same time, I don’t use up precious “focus points” that I need elsewhere in my life, just to develop habits for things that should be – dare I say it? – dirt simple.

Join the discussion
  • I have a question that I would like to ask

    how do you live your dreams when you don’t even know what they are

    what do you do when you have no passion, no drive no reason to get up and out of bed at any time of the day

  • The sad part about self-improvement is that if you have a reason and motivation to make yourself better and live your dreams is that in that state almost anything works because you just absorb ideas, but if you are depressed then you don’t even feel like trying any technique to get out of it. You see no reason to act at all. I don’t know a solution to this.

    Comment to the article:
    It was Aristotle that said it first, we ar the sum of our habits. That is truly what we are in the present.

  • So I have a paper problem — I am swamped by it — indeed I swim in an ocean of it every day.

    Articles I have read or need to read…
    Junk mail…
    Old Papers I’ve written or briefings I have given…
    Things that need to be scanned etc…

    I try to kill some of it every day but I fear it is a losing battle — and everytime I just throw something out I regret it…

    Hugely frustrating — got a small habit idea for that?

  • Sooo… does this stuff work for programming? There are some tasks that can be perceived as chores but that need to be done anyway — commenting code, refactoring, proper naming, etc. It would be great if the principles described here could be applied to these areas… but I would think it would be difficult because they do require thought and some degree of focus. Whaddya think?

  • I’m not sure where I should post this but thought this good enough as any.

    About eight months ago in a class I had the teacher who made such remarks that made me question everything, and this has been really bothering. Topics I never thought about once were popping up or I’d make them up, or I’d go hunting for them. I’m just not sure why the questions the teacher had imposed have made me feel so unlike how I used to feel and think about things.?

    As if my whole everything I thought “was” was blown away. Made my everything that was focused become a question game, a kind of retracting of what I think. I find myself looking through books talking myself in circles. Has been madness. But the funny thing is I don’t mind that.

  • How can we achieve our dream, if we only have one, and it relies on the actions of another person, and their dream is diametrically opposed?

    I.E. We wish that someone would forgive us and love us agaib, but they do not want the same. If we have no other dream, or goal, then we are stuck aren’t we. Sometimes it is impossible to let go, even if we try.

  • “””We wish that someone would forgive us and love us agaib, but they do not want the same.”””

    You wish to be accepted and loved; it doesn’t have to be by a particular person, no matter how much it might seem that way now.

    “””Sometimes it is impossible to let go, even if we try.”””

    Also not true: the feelings we “can’t let go” are imprinted emotions that can be removed, and are routinely being removed by the people in my coaching group.

  • Thanks, your perspective really rang true for me. When I have a goal, I usually focus on making a “foolproof” plan and completing each task perfectly. The problem is I focus all of my energy on that goal, until I reach a problem and abort the plan entirely. I will try to apply what I learned in this article to make changes in my life. Thank you for sharing.

  • Thank you for sharing your insight on how to change your life. I especially can relate to the ‘focus points’ portion of the article. It is as if thinking about doing something is actually more exhausting than just doing it. Therefore, I stopped writing down things I need to do because that gave me a false sense of getting something done. Now I write down what I have done and it is very gratifying.

  • this is the most amazing thing. i don’e even know what to say. people are talking about EXACTLY what i have issed about. i mean word for word. my goodness ..
    thank you

  • dirt simple is a very interesting site! I’ve read through a few choice articles and some of the thoughts, ideas and suggestions resonates with me since such things have been the “hobby horse” of my mind since I can remember. After a lifetime of pondering & testing, I now believe such actions are symptom oriented, rather than root cause. My epiphany? Simply that “who” we believe we are determines everything else. Change one’s core identity (root cause) and such things as thoughts, purpose, actions and words line up accordingly. “As a man thinketh, so is he.” It’s the process of becoming “real” that’s hurts.

  • Very interesting post. I am not sure I agree with the idea of not thinking about something to change it though…

    It seems to me that most of our lives are lived unconsciously performing habits created over time.

    Since we are now unaware of these habits – they will remain the driving force of our lives unless they are replaced/changed.

    And – do we not need to become aware of these habits – and aware of the changes we want to make until that time the new habits take root?

    Then we can begin on the next habit.

    I agree it is good to start small… but I think it should be done very consciously!

    Good blog! Thanks!

    Miami Phillips
    Fun,Free,Fast Self Improvement Quiz

  • This is so true that if you focus on changing your actions instead of constantly trying to think differently it truly does change your life. If something is overwhelming or making me sad, I can work out or countless other physical movements to make those overwhelming feelings go away. Doing this over time truly does change my life. A great site that discusses this more is http://www.changeyouractions.com. Check it out.

  • Cool self improvement article. If more people like you would post such articles on their blogs and not just rant about things that most people aren't interested in – I'm sure the world could easily become a better place.

  • Unfortunately I have to disapprove your theroy. In the first video you claim, that your techniques will ensure positve outcome with steps. Quote unquote,"like eating cake". I don't know about you, bur not one time do I go through steps to eat cake. Your claim is that we can start being motivated naturally. I'm assuming you don't mean what you said. Now if you came up with the same process as easy as eating cake then that's what I want to know. I want to know why is it I can eat cake easily but wont pick up my guitar? They are both equally satisfactory, I get the same instant rush. But I still go for cake and still miss playing my guitar. Now tap into that and you might actually have something.

  • Sure you go through steps – you have to think of eating cake, then feel good about it, and then do it. This is the same. 😉

    If you don't follow those exact same steps for the guitar, then you won't do it.

    And it doesn't matter if you're adding or removing steps. If you're leaving out the thinking or the feeling good, then of course it won't work.

    But it also won't work if you add in extra thoughts like, "well, I don't really have time" or "that's too much trouble" or something like that.

  • Damn, what you wrote here is like half of the contents of Atomic Habits, and 14 years earlier too. Nicely done – that book is well-noted for being extremely actionable.



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Cover photo of "A Minute To Unlimit You" by PJ Eby
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