Most people don’t like change. It’s unknown and thus scary. Look at the huge changes we’ve all seen this year as a pandemic has swept the earth. For many, this has also led to job losses, financial turmoil, family strife, and the interruption of surgeries, weddings, travel, and education. Yes, some wonderful service has resulted and we’ve seen many inspiring examples of charity and love—but it’s brought huge adjustments. And these changes are in addition to all the usual ups and downs we encounter simply from living in mortality.
Somehow, we rally. When changes are this sweeping, people step up. Like going through any major disaster together, we bond. Research gets done. Solutions are sought. People agree to new rules of social distancing and hygiene. Neighbors support one another. The crisis is big, so our response is big.
But I want to talk about a completely different kind of change, often one we don’t even notice. It’s Incremental Change. And every one of us falls prey to it.
Look how many times you’ve gasped with surprise that a missionary has already been gone two years. And how many teenagers were just toddlers a week ago—or so it seems? You take a trip to visit a childhood home and a tree you remember is now ten times larger. Where did the time go?
Incremental change is like evaporation—it mostly happens without our notice. And this has dangerous potential. If we neglect to notice the tiny shifts in our behavior, soon we have a habit and it might not be a good one.
Satan loves to exploit this reality—he convinces us that “just one time” won’t hurt. Whether it’s breaking a commandment or failing to follow through with an honorable goal, he assures us we can get right back on the path later. Of course, when we realize we’re like Pinocchio on Pleasure Island—turning into a donkey—he tells us it’s too late. We can never repent, never be worthy to pray again, never attain God’s blessings. Nope, we’re doomed. We’re addicted, we’re hopeless, we’re evil, we’re lost souls. Like Nephi’s prophecy in 2 Nephi 26:22, the devil leads us “by the neck with a flaxen cord, until he bindeth them with his strong cords forever.”
A flaxen cord is actually a thin linen thread that’s easily broken. But add them up to form a rope and now you can be imprisoned, unable to break free. President Dieter F. Uchtdorf has spoken about a tiny change in the flight pattern of an airplane. At first it looks miniscule. But over miles and miles that gap from a correct path has widened until the aircraft is completely off course.
This is why it’s a good idea to take frequent inventory of our lives. Hopefully we do this as we take the Sacrament, ponder the scriptures, pray, and talk with loved ones. Not one of us can keep from changing (hopefully for the better as we grow and mature), but sometimes the changes are not taking us in the right direction. We can become complacent, apathetic, judgmental, indulgent, selfish—every negative trait under the sun—if we are not watchful.
But we can also use incremental change in our favor. We can look at the ways we want to improve and agree to the baby steps that will get us there. We can choose to be patient with ourselves and with others. We can set small, do-able goals. We can remember that we don’t have to attain perfection by 7 pm. We can lighten up and allow ourselves the time and space to grow. When we see tiny improvement, we can celebrate, thank our God, and realize we really can do this.
Most of our spiritual goals are like this—they can’t be purchased or developed in ten minutes. We simply must agree to the incremental change laws, and slowly proceed in the right direction. Again, Satan would have us think we’ve failed when our progress looks so minute, and we need to recognize those discouraging messages and ignore them.
Sometimes we can take heart that things are going well if we measure our progress. If you keep a daily or weekly log of exercise or correct eating, let’s say, you’ll do better than if you’re scattered and tend to hit-and-miss. Sharing goals with others also helps us stay on track.
What if your testimony is flagging? Make a plan. Take it to the Lord. Get a blessing. Speak with loved ones who can help. And, let me just say, be a loved one who can help, when someone else is struggling. Whether it’s a family or ward member, be the one they know will listen without writing them off as a lost cause (that would be Satan’s technique, right?) We need more tolerance of those who doubt and question—they need to know it’s okay and we’ll help them through it. Let’s not be part of the incremental pile-up of rejection that eventually turns them away.
There’s really no limit to the good we can accomplish and the positive growth we can experience, if we use incremental change to improve. In his book, Tipping Point, author Malcolm Gladwell shares multiple examples of small, incremental changes that ultimately add up to enormous successes. Look at prominent athletes, musicians, business owners, parents—none of them woke up one day a completely different and much more talented person. They worked at it. They allowed good incremental change to pile up over a long time to get where they are today. They used this phenomenon in their favor.
And we can do it. We can pay attention and notice when we’re slowly slipping from the best, most moral behavior we know. We can nip bad habits in the bud. We can also water the better buds—we can invest small bits of time and energy in the outcomes we truly want, then watch them blossom. Before we know it, we can even step back in amazement and think, Wow, where did the time go?
Hilton’s books, humor blog, and Youtube Mom videos can be found on her website. She currently serves as an Interfaith Specialist for Public Affairs.