How do you know when you’re ready for change?
There is change that is out of your control. Something happens to you, without warning, and you just have to roll with it. There is the change that falls under the umbrella of self-improvement, with varying degrees of success, at the beginning of every year, often powered by good intentions and discounts to your local gym.
And then there is another kind of change. It’s the one where you keep hearing that nagging voice in the back of your mind that is telling you that whatever you’re doing isn’t working anymore and something has to give.
As a rule, I’m not the biggest fan of New Year’s resolutions. Historically, when I have made one, it was neglected shortly after. But I thought that in 2018, I might try something a little different.
During the last few months of 2017, I had noticed that I had been going to bed later and later and I had been struggling to get up and out in the morning. It was one of those things where I would feel tired during the day, collapse after dinner, put off cleaning up and getting ready for the next day, and then when I finally got into bed I would be wide awake and then the cycle would start anew.
So in good faith, I decided to institute a 30-day challenge to change my sleep habits. My hope was that I would feel physically better and generally have less of a short fuse when it was all over. To hold myself accountable, I decided to post about it on social media. Because what is social media for if not to shame us into doing things?
Full disclosure, I wasn’t transformed into a morning person after this challenge. But I did learn a lot about how and why we make decisions and how small change can really change your perspective.
This was the week where I was the most diligent about keeping to the rules I made -- in bed by 10:30 p.m. and up by 6:30 a.m. on weekdays and an 11:30 p.m. bedtime and 7:30 a.m. wake up on weekends. I noticed that at first, because I wasn’t as tired, it was actually a little tough to fall asleep. I also found myself waking up in the middle of the night. But I did feel like I had a burst of energy in the morning.
I also noticed that I was getting hungry at 11 a.m., around an hour before I usually had lunch. I thought I would be stressed by the time pressure to get things done in the evening before I went to bed. But I actually liked having time to relax at night and in the morning before getting on the train. I found that I had more mental clarity and a “let’s get this done attitude” about chores that I hoped would extend to bigger things I would otherwise put off.
It was all going so well. At the start of the week, I stuck to the prescribed time table, but then on Tuesday I decided that I wasn’t that tired so I stayed up until 11:30 p.m. and woke up at 6:30 a.m. I found that that I was still hungrier than usual, but also had more clarity and energy. I went to after work events on Monday and Tuesday night, and still had enough energy to do all my chores.
On Wednesday and Thursday I had a similar amount of sleep and felt refreshed when I woke up. But that didn’t last long, because by Thursday afternoon I felt like I had been hit by a truck. Aching joints, nausea, headache, congestion, basically all the fun things. I fell asleep at 9 p.m., woke up around 2 a.m. and didn’t go back to sleep for the rest of the night. Feeling feverish on Friday morning, I decided I was better off taking a sick day rather than inflicting whatever I had contracted on my co-workers.
Even though I felt largely better after the weekend, I still settled in for a week of hoarseness that made me sound like Christian Bale’s version of Batman. This week I was still waking up before 7:00 am, but that was largely due to the fact that I couldn’t really breath through my nose. But even though I was somewhat down for the count, I still had enough energy to do all the chores I needed to for the following day.
And maybe it was the sleep deprivation and the fact that my body was incubating what turned out to be a sinus infection, but I noticed that something was different. During week three, I went out after work with new friends two days in a row. I attended a reading and asked a spontaneous question during the Q&A session. I reached out to two people whose work I admire.
All of this was slightly out of character for me. Usually during the week, I would go home and collapse after work. As journalists, we ask questions for a living, but most of the time those questions are researched and planned ahead of time. And if I like someone’s work, I might share an article on Facebook and Twitter, but not say something to them directly. But after I did these things, I felt good. They were small, but taken together, it was a deliberate change on my part to engage with people in ways that I normally wouldn’t.
Thanks to a course of antibiotics I was prescribed to deal with said sinus infection, the experiment as it was originally intended came to an end. But I still found that the prior three weeks had trained my body to get up slightly earlier so I was no longer rushing in the morning. And even though it didn’t go the way that I planned, the challenge taught me a lot.
When you’re trying to make changes, don’t forget to take care of yourself. Listen to your body and remember that your health is the most important thing. But being out of commission, even in a mostly manageable way, was also a good reminder that life often gets in the way, so if you want to try something new, go for it.
But it also got me thinking. If I could do those small actions that I would normally avoid, was I actually building up some kind of immunity? If a huge, scary, unexpected thing came along, would I be better able to handle it because of the breadcrumbs I left along the way?
And then there was the biggest question: How much does being afraid of change really drive the choices we make? Apparently, quite a lot.
I spoke with Brad DeWees to learn more. He’s a doctoral student at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, where he explores how organizations deal with change. He’s also a captain in the U.S. Air Force. He told me that being in a fearful mindset actually leads you to perceive more risk than you otherwise would.
“People tend to value losses more than we value gains. It hurts to take away $10 more than it feels good to gains $10," he says. "When you think about it in the context of change or starting out on the new venture, if your status quo is what you're trying to move away from, then that is going going to represent possible losses."
So what can we do to avoid going immediately to this idea of loss? DeWees says that a good place to start is to actually sit down and do the math. Arm yourself with as much information as you can about the choices. And then for good measure, break it down into small pieces and put the focus back on elements of the decision you can control.
“It's really important to focus on small wins when you're leading change. It has the added benefit of not just helping you overcome the aversion to loss but it gives you a sense of momentum to take a small step and see that you're accomplishing something,” DeWees says. "[Dr. Jennifer Lerner, the co-founder of the Harvard Decision Science Laboratory,] makes this joke -- if all you can say is that I control putting one foot in front of the other, even that can help, that can have a temporary soothing effect of I'm not totally helpless here. I'm in charge of some things.”
Meera Lee Patel agrees. She is an artist and the author of the new book My Friend Fear: Finding Magic in the Unknown. Patel says she wants to help people train themselves to consider that the unknown can actually hold positive things that they may not have imagined. While you’re never going to completely get rid of fear, she says, if you can identify it, you can give yourself the tools so you won’t feel as overwhelmed and paralyzed by it.
“For something as simple as wanting to leave your job, there are tons of concrete steps you can take in order to keep that fear at bay,” Patel says. “I would encourage people to write down their goals and then write down all of the things that they are afraid of going wrong if they work towards that goal. Take measures to protect yourself against your fears coming true."
By the end of January, after my morning routine shakeup had been stalled, I was wondering whether the attempt had actually made a difference. So when I saw this YouTube video from by writer, actress and advocate Anna Akana, I found it particularly compelling.
Titled, “Do you make fear decisions or growth decisions?” Akana broke down the difference between the two. “Fear-based decisions tend to come from a need to feel safe and stay in the familiar," she explained in her video. "Whereas growth-based decisions are usually a lot scarier, because they come with uncertainty and unknown change.”
Akana’s point was that because of that perceived feeling of safety, it might seem like it is easier to make decisions from that place. But in reality, it can actually be kind of stifling. So what happens once you decide that you don’t want to do that anymore? I asked Akana what her best advice is for keeping yourself honest in these kind of situations.
“Being accountable for yourself and incorporating real internal change is some of the hardest work out there -- and feels endless sometimes,” Akana told Entrepreneur. “I'm a big advocate of therapy, meditation and journaling. Being able to discuss your problems with a professional will help you understand why you're doing the things you do. Meditation gives you the mental space to have awareness about your thought process and decisions. And journaling is an excellent tool to look back on how you reacted to events in your life and determine if there are patterns there.”
“Often people think a 'big change' must mean that you just impulsively leap into a new environment and figure it out on the way," Akana says. "Though that works for some people, I always encourage calculated risk. Knowing what you want, how you're going to get it and planning accordingly.”
So how can you make sure that the fear doesn’t get the better of you when you are taking that calculated risk? Patel has a simple two-word solution: “So what?” “It’s a good question to ask yourself when your fear feels monumental," she says. "Is this really the most terrible thing that can happen? The possibility of greatness far outweighs the possibility of failure. So give it everything you got and keep going.”
If you’re not the type of person to completely change everything overnight, that’s OK. Clearly, most people aren’t. And if you’re afraid to make the leap, that’s normal because the fear will always be there. But to start, try to make a small change, even if it’s just something like waking up an hour earlier. See what happens and then give yourself permission to go bigger.
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This article originally appeared on Entrepreneur.com. Minor edits have been done by the Entrepreneur.com.ph editors