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Is your brain more comfortable with change than you think?

Smartphones have simplified our lives so much that a single button can summon a car, order dinner, or have a TV delivered directly to the door. Still, it takes a bit more effort than pressing a button to initiate serious change in your life.

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Even if you have identified the necessary change, taking action is another story altogether. While life changes cannot be made with the push of a button, there are ways to make it easier.

Why initiating change in your life can be so difficult

Change can be uncomfortable for many people, and the anxiety of thinking about changing can be even worse. “When you get stuck in your head instead of taking an action, you can get stuck,” says licensed clinical social worker and author Amy Morin. “We spend time wrestling with, ‘I don’t know if I can handle all the work!’ We doubt ourselves, thinking the change is going to be too much work. Usually, this pain is even worse than actually changing.” Morin discourages thinking about “the last time you tried to change” or fast-forwarding to a future that doesn’t yet exist; try instead to let those thoughts go. Embracing change with an open mind can also help ease any setbacks you might suffer along the way. “If you can’t adapt to the fast-changing world, that can be a big problem,” Morin says. “But if you’re adaptable, you can tolerate being a little uncomfortable.” Believing you can handle whatever situation life throws at you can go a long way, she says.

The three steps inherent to any change

The mind undergoes three distinct steps before one can effectively make a change. Morin breaks it down like this:

  1. Pre-contemplation: This is the stage in which you wonder whether you really actually need to change anything.
  2. Contemplation: In this stage, you consider your options including thoughts like, “Maybe I should make a change.”
  3. Preparation: Here, your mind shifts toward planning, “How am I going to make this change?”

If you read those steps and thought that you’ve never had a problem being aware that change was needed in your life, but that you often struggle to prepare for it, worry not! Morin says that’s normal, as different people get hung up on different steps. So if you’ve ever been a person who says something like, “Tomorrow I’m going to start losing weight!” without first figuring out how to do it, you know that you should focus on preparation. You might also benefit from more time in the preparation stage if you’re hesitant to address your problems, and can’t seem to force yourself to take the leap into action. Morin recommends making a list of pros and cons of effecting change in your life, as well as the pros and cons of not doing so. She says it can be helpful to break down preparation into smaller steps and have a plan for what to execute first.

Hints for effective change

Once you’ve committed to taking action, Morin has some helpful tips for efficiency. She suggests it might help to think of yourself as a scientist, simply trying different methods to determine optimal success.

  • Think of it as a behavioral experiment: If you’re trying to commit to more frequent exercise, instead of saying, “I have to go to the gym for an hour,” try aiming for 10 minutes, after which you’ll reevaluate how you’re feeling. Morin says it’s much less daunting when you “give yourself permission to opt out of something.” You may find it easier to commit to larger patterns when you divide a goal into smaller increments.

  • Hold yourself accountable: To continue the example of more frequent exercise, perhaps you could invite a friend to meet you at the gym at a certain time. You might skip a workout day when alone, but committing differently (and to others) may help you follow through.

  • Expect adversity: If you’re in the process of changing your habits, you will likely face setbacks or resistance There’s a reason this new pattern isn’t already in place. It may help to plan ahead and think about “how you’re going to recover from it,” Morin says.

  • Don’t hold yourself to an impossible standard: No one’s perfect. If you’ve planned ahead, you can learn from adversity, rather than become paralyzed by it. People often feel guilt when falling off the wagon or giving in to temptation, Morin says. Acknowledging change as a process rather than a single event may allow for an easier and more enjoyable evolution.

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