Living in Recovery

Why Small Steps Often Mean More Than Massive Changes

Often, when we consider the notion of change, we only pay attention to the extraordinary measures people take to overhaul their lives. We think of the person who had the life-altering epiphany, the one who “woke up” one morning and decided to do everything differently.  Read More

All great changes are proceeded by chaos- Deepak Chopra  

Often, when we consider the notion of change, we only pay attention to the extraordinary measures people take to overhaul their lives. We think of the person who had the life-altering epiphany, the one who “woke up” one morning and decided to do everything differently. 

And then, we imagine the final result- the college graduation, the completed marathon, the published book, the years of successful recovery. We see the finish line, and we assume that’s what the stuff of change really is. 

It’s no wonder we often feel overwhelmed when we start to reevaluate our habits. It’s no wonder we seemingly sabotage ourselves before we even start the work. We don’t really understand how change works- and why tiny moments matter most of all. 

Mastering Tiny Changes

Momentum compounds, meaning the more that you achieve something, the more likely you are to want to replicate that outcome. Feeling empowered gives you the confidence to try again and again and again.

And so, building this discipline starts by focusing on the smallest level. 

If you want to graduate college, the momentum doesn’t start your senior year. It doesn’t even start your freshman year. Instead, it starts when you take that first step to imagine what going to college might feel like. Then, it starts by making a proactive choice to research for a few programs in your area. It starts growing as you apply to a program and attend an orientation. It continues when you sit in your first class and complete your first homework assignment. 

Tiny changes are also rooted in repetition. For example, every hour you choose to not smoke a cigarette is an hour you choose to not smoke a cigarette. Eventually, you stop identifying as a smoker. And once you can change your identity, you can often release the parts of you that no longer serve your best interest.

But this transformation does not happen overnight (and it would be presumptuous if it did). Instead, it happens over the course of a thousand chosen repetitions. 

Developing Systems Over Outcomes

You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems- James Clear

True change must come from changing how you do things. It isn’t just about achieving a goal. It’s about creating an effective system that aligns with your desired goals. 

For instance, we all know that relapse is a common part of the recovery process. The lack of implementing a rock-solid recovery system likely explains some of this phenomenon. Many people focus on “just staying sober” without developing a true plan for maintaining sobriety. As a result, they remain consistently vulnerable to all the stressors that could threaten their goals. 

Yes, setting goals matters, especially when you’re trying to cement a positive change in your life. But it may be more beneficial to focus on HOW you intend to achieve that goal. 

For example, if you decide you want to run a marathon, you might set a system of running X miles per day (or X miles per week) for X amount of months. That way, even if the marathon never happens (for whatever reason), you have already committed to an appropriate system should you modify the goal to something else. 

Cultivating Discipline Over Motivation 

In my work as a psychotherapist, I frequently talk about cultivating the mindset of discipline over motivation. People often wait to feel motivated or excited or prepared to do something. Then, they rely on these fleeting emotions to maintain the change.

And what invariably happens? Motivation comes…and it goes. It often starts STRONG (especially when we feel emotionally exhausted with ourselves), but then it fizzles as life inevitably becomes stressful or when other desires tempt us.

Relying on motivation means relying on a maybe. Discipline, however, can be strengthened. Every time you make a positive choice, you embrace discipline. You embrace doing something regardless of how you feel about it. It’s more of a neutral perspective, but neutrality can be the game-changer when it comes to long-term commitment. 

Acknowledging Failures and Setbacks 

The most powerful teaching moments are those where you screw up-  Brene Brown

All growth can be hard, and when making changes, you will make mistakes along the way. This reality is inevitable and denying it only reinforces a toxic, lose-lose pattern of perfectionism. 

But how do you react when you experience such setbacks? Do you abandon the goal together? Do you blame yourself (or others) mercilessly? 

Or, can you take ownership over what happened? Can you reflect honestly and comprehensively about what went wrong and what you hope to achieve differently next time? In other words, can you use this experience as a foundation for cultivating new insight?