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Achieving personal goals can be as frustrating as trying to nail Jello to a wall.
Lose weight? Get more sleep? Exercise daily? Take a dream vacation? Improve a relationship? Earn a promotion? Read more books? Watch less TV? Cut back on social media? Save more money? Spend less?
The list can go on. Set a worthy goal, then fail to achieve it. Honestly, most of us have been there, done that.
Rather than buy a ticket for another guilt trip, how about taking a different approach?
That “different approach” can be found in the work of wellness expert Brett Blumenthal. Rather than set yourself up for disappointment by setting big goals, she suggests one small change per week for 52 weeks. You might call it the “yard by yard it’s hard, but inch by inch it’s a cinch” approach to personal improvement. It’s a surprisingly simple formula: focus on one small, achievable change every week. Then enjoy the accumulation effect.
Regardless of what’s on your wish list of personal improvement, this research-based practice works.
Blumenthal provides user-friendly guidance in 52 Small Changes for the Mind and other books that bring sanity—and hope—to anyone who’s serious about doing better and being better.
Rodger Dean Duncan: Your “52 small changes” approach to personal improvement has proved to be very popular. What’s the rationale behind this practice?
Brett Blumenthal: Small changes have proven to be more successful than major overhauls for the following reasons—
- One Big Goal = Many Small Steps.Every big goal, such as weight loss, requires many smaller actions, such as cutting out bad foods, exercising, and eating healthy foods. Breaking a big goal into smaller components makes the process more manageable.
- Extremes Don’t Work. Overhauling our life, or more simply put—going from all to nothing, or vice versa—causes burn out. Taking a step-by-step approach, however, makes change seem less overwhelming.
- It Feeds Our Need to Succeed. Small Changes feed our need to succeed. With each one you successfully make, you fill up your confidence bucket, enabling you to take on more. Allowing ourselves to master small adjustments, gives us an opportunity to feel successful, and the motivation to forge ahead towards the bigger goal.
Duncan: If a person chooses to try the “52 small changes” approach, what’s a good way to decide exactly which changes to pursue?
Blumenthal: The 52 Small Changes concept is to make one small change per week over the course of one year to eventually add up to a larger change. Although the concept is structured, the changes you want to make are really up to you and the personal journey you want to have. In short, the changes should be small, manageable and quantifiable.
For instance, “drink eight glasses of water per day” vs. “hydrate more.” A change like “get fit” does not qualify as a small change. Instead, break it down into smaller ones such as: “Do cardio three times per week for 30 minutes each time.” Then, maybe the next week, “Do ten minutes of weights three times per week.” Take a week to integrate a change before moving onto a new one. But if one change is really easy or already part of your life, feel free to move forward with another change.
Duncan: You recommend writing a personal mission statement. What are the steps to doing that, and what role can a carefully-crafted mission statement play in a person’s quest for improvement?
Blumenthal: In business, companies summarize who they are and their intentions with a mission statement. This gives the company direction and a consistent message in everything they do. Developing a personal mission statement gives you a way to define the type of person you want to be and how you want to contribute to life. It should be reflective of your authentic self, and not other people’s beliefs or values. It should inspire you, and if written well, should provide you with direction and motivation in life.
Try keeping your statement to a few sentences or a short paragraph. Key questions to answer should include—What characteristics and qualities do I want to live by? How do I want to contribute to the world? What kind of influence do I want to have? and If I could, what legacy would I leave?
Here’s an example—”I will put my best into everything that I do. I will live with passion and choose activities, friendships and relationships that bring out the best in me. I will bring out the best in others and will give my time and energy to the things I value.”
Duncan: You recommend a six-step path to personal reinvention. In a nutshell, what are those steps?
Blumenthal: Just like any large corporate transformation requires a structured plan to be successful, so do we as individuals.
The six steps I recommend are—
- Identify the Need. Realize something in your life isn’t right and that a change is needed (e.g., you have been miserable at your job for more than a year)
- Discover Yourself. Build self-awareness so when you embark on a transformation you remain true to yourself and set yourself up for the greatest possible success
- Design Your Vision. What change do you really want to make and what is the end result you want?
- Create the Plan. Think about timeline, smaller milestones and all that is required to make the change happen.
- Make it Happen. Put the plan into action and hold yourself accountable
- Monitor Progress. Check in and see if things need to be adjusted or if timelines need to change based on your progress.
Duncan: You encourage people to keep a personal “reinvention” journal. What role does that practice play in adopting and maintaining new, more productive habits?
Blumenthal: Studies show that when we write down our goals, we are more likely to be successful at attaining them. Journaling provides the following benefits—
- It Makes it More Official. Putting thoughts, feelings and reactions down in writing makes them more real and official. Your journal is a record so your work is meaningfully captured. It allows you to treat the process more seriously and gives you an opportunity to reference your inner thoughts and emotions later if necessary.
- It Helps You Keep Track. There’s nothing more rewarding than documenting your plan, reviewing your progress and seeing how you’re able to successfully achieve your goals. This will keep you inspired and give you a feeling of continued success as you go through your journey.
- It Aids Expression. Journaling forces us to articulate ourselves in a meaningful and understandable way. It slows down our response time, encouraging deeper thought, and more expansive and thorough expression.
- It Makes You More Observant. Journaling gives us reason to look around and observe what is going on around us and in our environment. It helps us to think about things more carefully and seriously then we might otherwise.
- It Makes You Accountable. Documenting your process encourages accountability. With every goal, milestone and action step you create, you’ll feel more responsible in committing to them and completing them.
Duncan: We live in a world of short attention spans and a demand for instant gratification. What can be done to prevent those tendencies from sabotaging the pursuit of personal improvement?
Blumenthal: Ah, this seems to be true for so many of us, myself included. Thinking back only five to ten years ago, I wasn’t nearly as reliant on technology, and I was more willing to wait in line or be patient than I am today. In order to reduce our need for instant gratification, we need to practice patience and disengage from technology. This allows us to slow down and reconnect with what matters most. Getting out in nature, taking walks (without a device), traveling and meditating are all wonderful practices to help free us from the frenetic go-go-go pace we lead. Also, spending time with animals and kids reminds us to live in the moment and to let go of the constant need to have things happen immediately.
Duncan: Self-discovery and self-awareness are critical to a person’s ability to undergo significant personal improvement. But truly honest introspection can be hard for some people. What are some ways to “get more real” in confronting one’s self-imposed roadblocks to meaningful change?
Blumenthal: This is one of the most challenging components of self-improvement. Without self-awareness, we can’t be authentic to ourselves or to our goals for change. Yet, we all carry baggage and have relationships that can prevent us from being true to ourselves. For instance, in developing a perspective or viewpoint, many of us rely too much on what other people think. This can throw us off course when trying to recognize and listen to our own thoughts and feelings. If people providing their opinions or perspectives don’t understand you, your values or your needs, they could give you misguided information or insight. Further, if they’re coming from a psychologically unhealthy place, they may have a distorted perspective.
Instead of relying on opinions of others for insight to build self-awareness, it’s important to focus on your own thoughts, feelings, memories and experiences as much as possible. Begin setting boundaries with individuals who tend to give unsolicited advice or opinions. Let them know that although you appreciate their input, you need to reflect on your own thoughts and emotions. If they care for you, they’ll respect your wishes.
Duncan: We’re creeping up on January 1. What have you found to be the keys to effective New Year’s resolutions? You know, the kind that people actually keep.
Blumenthal: I have a saying: Making resolutions only at the New Year is like saving romance solely for Valentine’s Day. Why? It’s too much anticipation and pressure, and can often lead to disappointment. Instead of waiting, make resolutions when you’re most inspired. Start now if you want…so the pressure is less intense to be successful in January. Also, as I discuss in my books, I really believe in making many small changes over time to achieve a larger goal. Break down the larger goals or changes into bite-size tasks so you feel like you’re working towards your goal while also succeeding with each smaller step.
This column was first published by Forbes, where Dr. Duncan is a regular contributor.