“Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change.” – Mary Shelley
When it comes to change, always think small.
We have a tendency to view change as something that requires a dramatic overhaul in our lives. Whether it is starting a diet, changing career, or engaging with a new creative project, when we consider the task at hand our heads are usually filled with images that can overwhelm us. The thought of making such a change in our lives immediately activates our natural reaction to any change, good or bad: fear.
As soon as fear arises, resistance increases. We find ways to procrastinate, avoid, or sabotage the goal we are pursuing. The reality of the journey we are undertaking seems so big, the destination so impossible that we run away from it.
The way to get around this is to think small. Dream big but act small. The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Rather than taking in the big picture focus on one thing, one small thing that you can do today, right now, to move you towards your goal.
By consistently taking small steps you avoid the pain and uncertainty associated with dramatic change. The small changes that you do make give you pleasure as your momentum and motivation increases and your life becomes suffused with the satisfaction that comes with gradually moving towards a valued goal.
In neuroscience they talk about ‘experience-dependant neuroplasticity’. This refers to the fact that the brain, even adult brains, are always changing in response to experience. Jeffrey Schwartz coined the phrase ‘Self-directed neuroplasticity’ which denotes the practice of intentionally using beneficial experiences to change our brains for the better.
Every experience leaves behind a neural trace. So every time we experience confidence, a sense of achievement, or our own efficacy and efficiency, it makes it more likely that we will experience that feeling/state again in the future. Through frequent repetition of experience, positive states of mind become positive traits of character.
What is interesting about this is that the brain changes best through the practice of ‘little and often’. Deliberately making little changes in thought and action, practiced consistently, changes the structure and function of the brain over time. Every little action you take, every little decision you make, creates or reinforces neural pathways which then makes it easier to repeat those beneficial behaviours in the future.
Doing that little bit extra once makes it easier the next time. Holding back in an argument once makes it easier to show restraint next time. Making a decision once instead of procrastinating makes it easier to act decisively next time.
In the realm of personal change this is very good news. It means that little actions, repeated often can have profound consequences in our lives. Of course, this too translates to societal and global change and the problems that we often feel we have little control over or that our actions make no difference. Every action has not only a knock-on effect on our future behaviour but also has a ripple effect on the world around us, whose influence and effect we can never fully know.
To end, a fitting parable:
Once upon a time, there was an old man who used to go to the ocean to do his writing. He had a habit of walking on the beach every morning before he began his work. Early one morning, he was walking along the shore after a big storm had passed and found the vast beach littered with starfish as far as the eye could see, stretching in both directions.
Off in the distance, the old man noticed a small boy approaching. As the boy walked, he paused every so often and as he grew closer, the man could see that he was occasionally bending down to pick up an object and throw it into the sea. The boy came closer still and the man called out, “Good morning! May I ask what it is that you are doing?”
The young boy paused, looked up, and replied “Throwing starfish into the ocean. The tide has washed them up onto the beach and they can’t return to the sea by themselves,” the youth replied. “When the sun gets high, they will die, unless I throw them back into the water.”
The old man replied, “But there must be tens of thousands of starfish on this beach. I’m afraid you won’t really be able to make much of a difference.”
The boy bent down, picked up yet another starfish and threw it as far as he could into the ocean. Then he turned, smiled and said, “It made a difference to that one!”