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​Small Steps to Changing Your Life: Making Resolutions You Can Keep

Change is challenging, even for those who say they like it. Spiritually, there is always a dimension of loss in change, a ‘dying’ of that which is “before.” This loss seeks acknowledgement even in the midst of the excitement of ‘new birth’ for that which is “after.” Yes, change is hard that way.

In addition, change can be fleeting. As creatures of habit – a friend speaks of this neurobiologically, suggesting “what fires together wires together” - our best intentions for transformation often have limited duration or scope. This is the lesson that we all have learned as we and others wrestle each January 1 with “New Year’s resolutions.” While the force of habit is surely part of this limited success in effecting personal change, another reason is distraction. As a rule, we are busy people with lots of competing stresses.

So, should we just “cut ourselves a break,” and forget even the hope of making real changes in our lives? G-d, I hope not! As a spiritual care professional in addiction and behavioral health treatment, I am a big believer in change and a student of it. Several years ago, I made a survey of change theories in different disciplines, including organizational development, human relations, psychology, and theology. These various models and methods for change turned out to have many aspects in common. A huge dividing point, however, also came to light. What I realized was some people wanted sudden change and their models or theories were grounded in this idea of dramatic transformation. Other models seemed to embrace a more incremental change style.

Is it one or the other? Can we have both? What would be the wisest course for us as we move into a new year and seek true transformation?

My experience and my study suggest that dramatic and more sudden changes depend on crisis. So, if you are in crisis, perhaps there is an opportunity there worth seizing upon. I don’t want to underestimate this reality - people really do sometimes make amazing changes in a short period of time when propelled into them through a sense of personal or collective suffering. The secret here, the models tell us, is “the way out is through.” One cannot avoid, escape, or ricochet off the area of crisis. One must enter into its complexity, brave its fearful truths, and author a new path out of the chaos. Dramatic changes are generally not reparative or restorative - they move into a new way of being, a new horizon.

When we are not in a crisis, the greater wisdom invites us to embrace change as incremental. We embark upon a process in these more gradual models that includes a before, a middle, and an ultimate ‘after’ that requires a sustained effort and is best viewed in its small steps, taken one at a time. This approach to change asks more “What should I do next?” than “How do I get to the far horizon?”

You might wonder whether the recovery programs that assist people suffering from addiction are oriented more towards sudden or gradual change. The answer, though, is more “both/and” than “either/or.” Recovery stories exhibit dramatic transformations born of crisis and gradual transformations that are lived one day - even one minute - at a time.

The wisdom of the 12 step programs, as we apply them to the thought of a New Year resolution, is captured in many treasured slogans, principles, and practices. A recovery mind will take one step at a time, do the next right thing, see first things first, and take it easy. It will commit to a daily inventory and when we are less than optimal, promptly admit it. We will invite others to be with us in spirit and in concrete guidance on our journey. We will not lose sight of our long term expectations and specific outcomes, but will set our focus instead on the here and now.

The person with a nutritional or weight-related goal will make a daily food plan today, for today, and do the same thing tomorrow. He or she will seek out a supportive network that provides accountability, insight. Prayer and meditation can have their place. It is not about how far this will take me, but about beginning.

Other goals follow suit. I will not smoke today. I will not lie today. I will speak the truth about my feelings in my interpersonal relationships. Today.

Yes, in the end this may be the greatest piece of wisdom that a recovery perspective offers. Whatever change occurs in my life, it can only unfold one day at a time.

To view the full-size version of the infographic, click here.