Change is often perceived as something that is hard to accomplish. That generalization is not too helpful. Some change is hard, some is easy. If I ask you to change the clothes you wear – that’s easy. If I ask you to stop smoking – that may seem hard. It’s important that we define change a little more specifically if we are going to make some effective adjustments in our life. Change actually happens on many different levels: the environmental level, the behavioral level, the capability level, the belief, and identity levels. Think of these levels as five concentric circles. Change happens most easily at the outermost circle, the environmental level, and demands a bit more effort as we move toward the core, identity level. Let’s take a look at the various levels and how you might make some changes in each to shake up your routine and get you out of that rut.
Change At The Environmental Level
The first and easiest level to make changes in is the environmental level. This is the external world that you’ve created around you. Yes, you’ve created this world! The clothes you wear, what you eat, where you hang and who you hang with, are all a part of your environment. Changing your environment is crucial to getting you out of that rut. Now remember, we’re taking some simple steps here. We want the first changes to be easy but effective in moving us out of our routine.
Simple things like adding some new clothes to your wardrobe can begin to break our habitual cycles. Think about changing the colors that your routinely wear. As simple as this suggestion sounds, you’ll be amazed at the effect the color and texture of clothes has on your mental state. Our clothes and the colors we wear are one of the ways our personality expresses itself. Is there another side of you that your clothes currently don’t express? If you’re addicted to somber colors try brightening it up a bit. Go to a store and try on items that you wouldn’t normally. Notice how they make you feel when you’re wearing them. Try different materials and textures as well. Not a hat person? Try one on and see how it makes you feel.
Another environmental change you can make is to go do something that you’ve never done before, gathering some new experiences. These don’t have to be expensive trips to some exotic locale. They could be as simple as stepping into a store that you’ve never been to before, or taking a different route home. You never know what will turn up. Shaking up your routine is what we are after in changing your environment.
Finally, a third and deeper environmental change concerns with whom you spend your time. Chances are if you’re feeling stuck in a rut you are not being motivated by your current relationships. If you’re in a rut I’m willing to bet that some of your friends are feeling the same thing too. Finding some new friends can be challenging, but remember we are taking small steps here. You’re not looking to scrap all your friends, just make a few new and different acquaintances. This dovetails well with gathering some new experiences. Once you put yourself in a different environment chances are you will meet some different people. Be bold and step out. Introduce yourself first! Most of our lives we convince ourselves that we are so different from everyone around us. This puts a wall up between us, and those who could be enriching our world.
Change at the environmental level is easy and effective in moving us out of the rut and into a more fulfilling life. But changing your environment alone will not bring the fulfillment that we’re looking for. For that we have to go a bit deeper. We have to change our behavior. Environmental change coupled with behavioral change is a powerful force that can propel us into the life we want to lead. From here we’ll dig a little deeper and work at effecting change at the behavioral level, getting closer to the core of who we are.
Change At The Behavioral Level
Any time we talk about behavior we have to talk about responsibility, because we are the agents of our behavior. As soon as we begin to analyze our behavior, the idea of taking responsibility for our life and actions appears. Yes, a series of events did happen (life), but it was our response or reaction to those events that brought us to where we are today. The day you stop playing the blame game and stop looking for an invite to a pity-party (a party that becomes a prison) is the day you break out into real freedom and take control of your life. We can’t control all the events that happen in our life, but we can control our response to them and thus the outcome those events will have on our life. Responsible people realize that they are “response able.” You are in fact able to choose the response you will have to the events happening around you.
Often, when we get into a self-pity mode we start a cycle of negative thinking. We begin to make generalized negative statements about our self and about our behavior. The first thing to do is realize that you are not your behavior, and although you are responsible for your actions, you can admit that you may have made some poor choices, forgive yourself, and move on to some more positive behaviors. Take an inventory of the things you can do well and keep your mind focused on these. Stop limiting yourself by listing in your head what you “can’t” do. All of those “can’ts” are self-limiting beliefs. As a matter of fact, eliminate the word “can’t” from your vocabulary! Set your mind free of negative thinking and you will take a large step in your progress to moving out of that rut and breaking that routine.
One of the behavioral changes you can make is to schedule some regular new events into your week that get you going in the direction you want to go. Now don’t overdo it. I’m not talking about programming every waking hour, just a few throughout the week. Plan on hitting the gym twice a week. Commit to getting your banking done during your lunch-break every Thursday. Once we get some positive routines moving in our week, our life begins to take on new structure and meaning.
Remember to think of these levels of change as five concentric circles. Change happens most easily at the outermost circle, the environmental level, and demands a bit more effort as we move toward the core, the identity level. Let’s continue to move from the outermost level (environment) through the second level (behavior) to the third level (capability) were we deal with change regarding our capabilities or skills.
Change At The Capability Level
Capabilities or skills are the things that you can do, now. Everyone has a skillset that they have learned through training, education and experience. We often shortchange ourselves when it comes to listing the skills we have that can help us effect change in our life. Did you work in a pizza parlor? You probably took orders from customers, both face to face and on the phone, so you have customer-relations experience, as well as telephone sales experience. Were you in charge of the crew that night? Then you have managerial experience. My point, in using this simple example, is that we often don’t see all of the various skills that it took to accomplish a particular job. With that in mind there are a few exercises that we can do to help define our skills, take them to the next level, and acquire new ones.
What strengths do you have? What strengths would you like to have? Make a list for both of these categories. Jot down an action next to each one that will increase your capability in that area. If it’s a strength you already have, how can you improve it? If it’s a strength you’d like to have, how could you acquire it? What training would you need to be really good at it? You now have the beginnings of an action plan that will move you in the direction you want to go. Take the list of your current skills and rank them, with the strongest being number one. Look at the top three skills on that list. Are they things that you want to continue doing in the future? If not, rank the list of the skills that you would like to have and take a look at the top three. Would acquiring them move you in the direction you want to go? Is it possible to acquire those skills in the near future? What’s the first step that you have to take to acquire them?
Doing an honest inventory of your skills should give your spirit a boost and clarify your vision for the future. Remember, we often shortchange ourselves and don’t give ourselves credit for accomplishing what we have done in life. Quiet the “inner critic” and give yourself the credit you’re due for accomplishing what you have thus far. Chances are many of the choices you’ve made have shown some measure of courage, strength, and understanding.
Don’t let the “can’ts” that I mentioned previously get in your way at this level. Change at the capabilities level is essential to moving on in the world of work and the “can’ts” will stop you dead in your tracks, if you let them. We’ll deal with those more directly in the next concentric circle, the belief level.
Change At The Belief Level
Our belief system is what forms the world inside our head and determines how we react to the world around us. Beliefs are either empowering or disempowering. Because of this it is very important that we pay attention to the care and feeding of our beliefs. Most of our beliefs we get from others around us. Our parents, siblings, classmates, and coworkers help form our beliefs. Most importantly, we continue to modify them as time goes on.
We live in a world that is constantly trying to limit us. We are told repeatedly what we can and can’t do. Many of these limitations form beliefs in our mind about our capabilities. Society as a whole tries to get us to conform to a certain pattern and that pattern can be very limiting.
Do you ever find yourself wrapped up in some negative thought? This often generates depressive thinking. Negative thinking and self-doubt is so common. What we need are some strategies to help us out of our negative thinking and on to something a bit more positive. There are three steps we can take.
First, we need to become aware of just how deep the problem is. Many of us walk around all day long without realizing that we are constantly reciting some negative mantra in our head. These become self-limiting beliefs that dis-empower us. So, become aware of just what you are thinking during your day. Take note of the number of times and the kind of negative statements that you are making to yourself. Do you start in with it first thing in the morning? Does it only happen when you are around certain people, or doing certain things? Becoming aware of just how deep the problem is, is one third of the way toward changing this habit.
The next step is to call it what it is, a negative thought. That’s all. It has no power within itself to do anything to you. It’s whether you choose to believe it or not that’s important. Is it true? If it’s true (and it rarely is) can we do something about it so that it will no longer be true? If it’s not true, we need to take the next step.
The third step is to replace it with a corresponding, specific positive thought. Negative thoughts are usually general in nature – thoughts like, “I’m no good.” “I could never do that.” and, “I always fail at whatever I do.” Words like always, never and ever are absolutes that usually make the negative statement false.
The key in the replacement process is to make the positive statement specific. This lodges in the brain better and longer than any general statement. So instead of replacing “I’m no good,” with “I’m good,” replace it with a specific like, “I’m really good at making new friends.” As long as the positive statement is true (we don’t want to lie to ourselves) this will attach itself to our thinking much more quickly than some other generalization.
Do this with each negative thought you identify throughout your day. Write down the corresponding, specific positive thought. If you do this for a week you will end up with a list of positive affirmations about who you are and what you are capable of. Say them to yourself out loud each morning, noon, and night. Within days of this practice these statements will become part of your belief system and get you acting on the changes you want to make.
You should be realizing that change is not too hard if we have a strategy with which to work. If we start to work at changes on the outermost and easiest levels we can see progress much more quickly. With that encouragement we can then move on to the deeper levels.
Change At The Identity Level
In this last phase of our strategy we are dealing with change at a very deep level: our identity. Change at this level takes effort. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible! We’ve seen changes take place on other levels: environment, capability, behavior, and belief. Identity is just one level deeper. Each of these levels takes us closer to our core being. There is one level deeper than our identity at which change can take place and that’s the spiritual level. But whether or not that level exists can be debated and so, is outside of the scope of this article.
Change at both the identity and spiritual levels are not just changes, they are transformations! If we are going to be transformed then we need to wrestle with some tough questions. Those questions include: Who am I? and what’s my purpose in life? Now although answering those questions may not lead us into any quick changes, they do begin to clarify our direction, and if our direction is clear then we can proceed down the road. Transformation happens as we proceed on that journey. Transformation takes action.
Realize that changing our identity is really just gaining an understanding of who we have always been from the start, and setting out on a course of action that facilitates becoming that person. Start by making a list of your character traits. List as many as you can. Then go to three people that know you well and ask them to give you a list of your character traits. Did you miss any on your own list? Did you list things that others didn’t mention? Ask yourself why. Dig deep and be honest with yourself.
There are three things that often get in the way of our expression of who we truly are. The first is our internal vision of our perfect self. This is an ideal that we would like to attain but usually don’t. This limits us by making us always feel inferior. We never live up to the ideal and so we’re always down. Realize that this process is normal and natural and give yourself a break. As long as you are diligently working on changing things in the other areas we’ve discussed, you are doing all that you can to express who you are, right now. As long as you are committed to a course of constant improvement you will move closer to this ideal. Finding flaws along the way is part of the process.
Another thing that clouds our identity is the limiting thoughts and beliefs that we hold about ourselves. We’ve dealt with this at the belief level. At this point you should have a pretty good handle on changing your thoughts and controlling your beliefs so that you are moving in a positive direction.
A third thing that clouds our true identity is dealing with feelings effectively. Life throws lots of punches at us and we don’t often bounce back into the same shape. We get deformed and often limp down the road. Search your heart for feelings that have been left unattended and seek to resolve those before moving ahead. Unresolved anger and not forgiving others can hold you back and influence your expression of who you are in a very negative way. Dealing with this facet of limitation could need the help of a trusted friend or professional counselor.
Working at transforming your identity requires time alone in reflection. Take some time each week to do this. Ask yourself, “What is my positive purpose in life?” Listen quietly and see what you hear. Write down any thoughts or images that come to mind. Are all of your efforts and actions directed at fulfilling that purpose? If not, what actions have been leading you away from your purpose? What actions have been a distraction? Work at minimizing these and you will gain clarity of purpose.
Change doesn’t have to be an impossible affair. If we approach it with a consistent strategy we can accomplish most changes on our own, and with a little help from others we can change most facets of our life to get us out of our routines and ruts. We are complex animals as human beings. But that complexity can be simplified if broken down into its component parts, analyzed and worked with consistent effort over time.
One definition of “life” is “an entity that is changing.” If we take this definition literally that means that we are by very nature always changing if we are alive. Our culture, society and peers may tell us otherwise but these opinions don’t have to be the final authority on our lives. Choosing to change today is making a choice to become alive, adapting and impacting your environment for good.