Top Tips for Successful Change
Updated: Apr 9, 2022
Have you ever wanted to make a change but didn’t know where to start or how to go about it?
Have you ever made a New Year’s Resolution only to find it falls by the wayside?
Have you ever found yourself slipping back into old habits despite your best hopes and intentions?
Whether it’s a personal or professional change, an individual or family change … change can be a tricky and sometimes slippery thing.
There’s a Systemic Family Therapy concept that helps to understand why change can be so challenging – it’s called “homeostasis”. Homeostasis is the self-regulation that allows a system to maintain itself in a state of dynamic balance or equilibrium. What’s a system? A system could be you as an individual, your couple relationship, your family, your sporting team or even your team of colleagues.
Individuals and families develop homeostatic patterns to maintain stability and balance, especially in times of stress. Think of homeostasis as the “status quo” or “better the devil you know” – it’s a familiar way of being and familiar is often more comfortable than the unknown. These patterns can be patterns of daily life like where you do the groceries, coping strategies whether healthy or not so healthy, and relationship patterns like how you connect or manage relationship tensions. Maintaining stability is important, helpful, and helps us get through. And also, sometimes we reach a point at which the stable pattern that developed no longer serves us and we’d like to change something.
So why is it hard to change the homeostasis? Some things keep the homeostasis and get in the way of change include:
Fear and worry about things we can’t control.
Not having a compelling reason to move out of our comfort zone and change.
Not having a solid process for change.
Not having a clear and specific goal.
Setting goals that are so big they feel overwhelming and leave you not knowing where to start.
Too much focus on the problem, and not enough on the solution.
What can we do about the pull of the homeostasis so that change is possible?
Change begins with changing the way you see things, what you are focusing on. In the words of Socrates, “The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new”.
But what does this change of focus actually look like? In general, it means focusing on what you want, times when the problem isn’t present or isn’t as bad, positive emotions, advantages, strengths and resources, opportunities, successes, and your preferred future. This is what’s know as a solution focus, and it’s different to a problem focus. A problem focus means a focus on problems, what you don’t want, causes, negative emotions, disadvantages, deficits, risks, failures, and the undesired/feared future. This isn’t to say it’s not important to consider problems, but if we always stay in a problem focus, we can miss solutions. Taking a solution focus is a conscious, intentional shift in focus.
So once you decide to acknowledge the problem, and then take a solution focus what do you actually do to help with the change process? Below are a list of my top ten tips for successful change. These tips for change are based on a combination of ideas from Systemic Psychotherapy, Solution Focused Therapy, Narrative Therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Neuroscience.
1. Align change with your values
A compelling reason to move out of your comfort zone and change will set you up for success. One way to find your compelling reason is to connect to your values. Values are like a compass to help navigate the changes and challenges of life. Values aren’t a goal to achieve, but instead values are about how you choose to live – to act and behave as a way of living in relation to how you treat yourself, others, and the world around you. Taking time to consider what you value, what is important in life if the first step towards change.
2. Target only 1 or 2 changes at a time
Planning for successful change means making choices that set yourself up for success. One choice you can make to set yourself up for success is to start small and target only 1 or 2 changes at a time. If you have more than a couple of things in life you’d like to change, then make a list and prioritize which ones to work towards first. Working on too many changes at one time can be overwhelming and splitting your energy and focus too many ways can dilute your change efforts. Think of this as taking steps up a ladder one at a time to succeed rather than trying to step from the bottom rung straight to the top rung.
3. Create ‘goals’ that describe the outcome
Not all goals are created equal.
Great goals focus on the details of the change in specific ways describing what will be different when the change happens. Think of it as if you are going on a holiday and plan your destination (goal) in detail rather thinking about the place you are at now.
Great goals are:
Positively worded: This means using language that says what you will be doing instead of what you won’t be doing e.g., “Spend more time being fully present with my family” NOT “Stop using my phone so much”.
Well defined: This means that the goal will be clear and specific. A great question to ask yourself to get a specific goal is, “Right now, at this time in your life, in what aspects of family life would you like to be more present for and involved in?”
Concrete, behavioural, and measurable: This means goals that are well described – clear and specific e.g., if your goal is to spend more time with family, how much time will this , what exactly will you be doing, and when and where will you be doing it?
Achievable: This means goals are modest enough to be achievable. If you have a big goal it can help to break it down into smaller pieces and consider each of these pieces as steps to success. Take one step at a time.
Take a minute to think about a goal you have right now. Is it positively worded? Well defined? Concrete, behavioural, and measurable? If not, how can you reword your goal?
For added benefit, write down your goal….on paper with a pen. Committing something to paper actually helps us to take actions towards the goal, and the physical act of handwriting helps with application. As Mueller and Oppenheimer say in the title of their paper, “the pen is mightier than the keyboard”.
4. Notice what is already working
If you take some time to really think about it, you will likely find that there are moments and times when you are already doing things in line with your goal, and that things are happening that support your change. It’s particularly easy to miss this if you are focused on the problem, so take some time to think about the ways in which you are already moving towards your goals. These might be.
Plans you have
Actions you’ve taken
Feelings you have
Statements you make
Qualities you have
Desires and dreams you have
Thoughts you have
5. Do more of what is working
Once you’ve noticed what is working and helping you work towards your goals, just keep doing more of it. Yes, this part of the change process really is that simple! Why? Think of the thing you are already doing (even if it’s small) as a snowball rolling down a hill. The positive change may start as a very small little snowball, but as you keep noticing and doing more of what works, that’s the snowball gaining size as it rolls down the hill….the positive change getting bigger and bigger. In therapy this is called “amplifying” the change.
6. Develop an action plan
It’s important to develop an action plan for the goal. Break the goal down into small achievable steps and work on one step at a time. Remember the ladder analogy – one step at a time lays a foundation for successful change. If you are having trouble with a step, consider the size of the step…can it be broken down? Progress is progress no matter how small.
“Be not afraid of going slowly, be afraid only of standing still”
7. Visualize the change
Visualisation is a powerful technique that can help you to reach your goals and live your dreams. Visualisation increases your confidence and helps you ‘practice’ your change. The more specific you are and the more details you imagine the better the effect. And the more you practice the more effective the visualization – just like exercise you’ll keep improving with practice.
Create a picture in your mind of your goal being achieved, and add as much detail as you can, e.g., the location (wall colour or garden flowers), clothes you are wearing, and people present. And be sure to use all your senses e.g., sight, sound, taste, smell, touch. Spend time in the visualization and appreciate how the feeling that comes with see the change in your mind’s eye.
8. Create a ‘cue’ for your goal
We make mental notes all the time, e.g., grocery lists, to-do lists, post-it note reminders. Think of a ‘cue’ as a tangible mental note for your goal. This could be a word, a quote, a picture, or even a vision board. Work out what a great cue would be for you and then put this somewhere easily visible like your desk, bedside table, bathroom mirror, phone wallpaper.
9. Review your progress
Set aside time to review how you are going and keep up regular reviews. Ask yourself things like:
When am I taking steps in line with the change I’d like?
What were those steps?
What helped me take those steps?
In what situations and relationships was it hard to take steps towards or maintain the change?
What can I do to manage this challenge by doing just one thing differently? E.g., timing, body language, words said, actions, thoughts, location.
If you are having trouble thinking about what you could do differently, think of a person you look up to and what they might do.
10. Practice self-compassion
Self-compassion means treating yourself with kindness; being warm and understanding towards yourself as you would to a friend who might be struggling with something. It’s about realising that no one is perfect and that struggles, challenges, set backs, and failures are human. Practicing self-compassion means being gentle with yourself as you work towards change, especially if you have a hiccup or setback or if things don’t go as quickly as you’d like them to.
“Self-compassion – being kind to yourself, especially in the face of stress and failure – is associated with more motivation and better self-control”.
Did you know that self-compassion matters at a neurobiological level? An attitude of kindness activates a relaxation response in brain and parasympathetic neurotransmitters are released that positively shape thoughts, emotions and sensation. So, in the words of Shauna Shapiro “Even if you are in a difficult situation, simply adding the resonance of kindness changes the chemical soup”. What we know from neuroscience is that when our brains and bodies are experiencing a stress response it is harder to engage the part of our brains that help with thinking, reasoning, problem-solving, planning and connecting with others. This means that being hard on ourself makes change harder but self-compassion and kindness to self makes change easier – this is a critical part of any change endeavour.
If you’d like to make a change in life, remember that change is always possible, change can happen at any time, and that there are different ways to approach change.
I wonder which of these tips you are already using? Which ones would you like to use more? Which ones caught your attention? Which ones did you get a better understanding of? Which ones would you like to add into your change process?
I hope these ideas are helpful and useful in inspiring and supporting any changes you’d like to make in life, relationships and family. And remember...
“Change is hardest at the beginning,
messiest in the middle and best at the end”
Robin S Sharma.
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Dr Leonie White - Clinical Family Therapist and Psychologist
Helping people grow, connect and thrive in life’s unique journey.
Please note - this article is educational in nature and does not constitute therapy advice.
Please seek help from a professional if you require support.
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Mueller, P. & Oppenheimer, D. (2004). The pen is mightier than the keyboard: Advantages of longhand over laptop note taking. Psychological Science, 12(4).
Shapiro, S. (2020). Good Morning, I Love You. Sounds True: Bolder Colorado.