The Practice of Practicing
Change is hard. There's no reason to make it harder.
While the changes we are reaching for are positive ones, often the pressure we put on ourselves to be perfect can hinder our ability to actually make change.
Acknowledging that the process of change is hard and having a realistic view of that process (that it is not a linear path) are helpful. What is even more helpful is having actual strategies for how to handle the challenges that will arise.
In working with clients on changing things like adding in more physical exercise, improving nutrition, implementing self-care and exercising self-compassion, I often find that moving away from the idea of achievement can be helpful. Instead of trying to achieve a certain milestone, like exercising every day, we instead look at their approach as practice.
Shifting our focus from achievement to practice helps alleviate much of the stress that we put on ourselves when we are trying to implement changes in our life.
When we see our actions as practice, as something we are doing to prepare ourselves to make change, we can give ourselves more room to actually learn, which often includes failure. Failure is our greatest teacher. If we never fail we never have the opportunity to actually figure out what does or does not work for us and our lives.
To implement this strategy, which I call The Practice of Practicing, select one area that you are working on in your life. For this example we will work with the change of including more physical activity into daily life.
Once you have chosen the area you are working in, pick the first logical step to take.
If your ultimate goal is to be active five days a week then a primary goal, or the first logical step, would be to be active on one day of the week.
The reason to start small is that gradual changes are easier to make and have a higher success rate. It is much easier to gradually add a day of activity every few weeks than it is to constantly try for something out of reach and fail repeatedly. While failure can be our greatest teacher, it is like medicine, the devil is in the dose. Too much failure creates not only discouragement, but it can ultimately damage our self-perception, which will lead to us assuming that we cannot succeed in our efforts here, or perhaps anywhere!
With your first step solidified, you next gather together everything you will need in order to accomplish this primary goal.
In order to be active one day a week you would need to select what activity you will do. For this example, we have selected walking because it is easily accessible to most people. Next, choose how long and where you will engage with this activity; let us choose 20 minutes and the sidewalks in your neighborhood. How will you know 20 minutes have passed? Use a timer on your watch or phone. What will you wear? Set your appropriate clothing and shoes out so they are easy to get on when you are ready. Will you need anything additional? Sunscreen, sunglasses, a hat, an umbrella, etc; make sure you also have access to these things so that you are not at the mercy of the weather.
Additionally, since this activity takes time, you must set aside the time for it. This is best done in advance by scheduling it into your day. Using a calendar, scheduler or planner (whichever system you are either currently using successfully, or setting up one that makes the most sense to you) select the exact day and time that you will take your walk. Remember that you are walking for 20 minutes but that you will require some time before and after to prepare yourself, so make it easy on yourself and schedule in 30-45 minutes.
The last, and most important, thing you will need to prepare is an alternative plan. The character of life is to be chaotic, it will always surprise you. Knowing this, we should prepare ourselves. What would you do if it rained on the day you wanted to walk? Or was cold? Or hot? What if you suddenly had to go into work or take care of a sick loved one? What if you “just didn’t feel like it?” Before those things arise, create a plan for how you would manage them and work with or around them.
Some good alternatives are scheduling a second day and time, in case you need to re-schedule. This can include having two times in a day scheduled (scheduling your walk for 10 am, your prefered time, and also noting that you could do it at 3pm if necessary). You can also locate and set out clothing for inclement weather and check the weather forecast so you have a better idea of what to prepare for. In the case of waning motivation, you can prepare by creating a list of all the reasons you are implementing this change in your life so that you can recenter yourself in order to still do what you have chosen to do.
Now that you have a clear idea of everything you need in order to meet your initial goal of implementing activity one day a week you can begin to set practice into motion.
First, be clear in your mind that practice is only practice. The purpose of practice is to prepare to do a thing, to improve in a gradual and organic way. The purpose of practice is not to be perfect, practice is not doing something “right” the first time, or even necessarily doing a thing.
To practice your goal you do not need to accomplish it, as that is not the goal of practice. You are simply approaching the goal.
Now that you have determined all the parts necessary to achieve your goal, you can approach it in several ways. You could, for example, simply practice scheduling and then being available at the time that you have set. This is the practice of showing up. Once you feel comfortable with that and have created consistency by showing up several times, you can practice putting on appropriate attire by dressing for the activity and weather.
You can continue in this way, every few days adding a bit more so that you continue to gain proficiency without creating a sense of overwhelm. Does this seem overly simplistic? You can at any time decide to go farther, but you are not obligated to. If you are practicing showing up and getting dressed and you feel ready to step outside and then ready to begin walking that is still something you can try. But your immediate goal is not that, so you are reducing the pressure on yourself while also slowly strengthening the skill set necessary to be successful.
At this point you may still have your doubts. You may think this is too easy, that a child could do this, it couldn’t possibly help you make the changes you want to make. Understandable, but consider this: if you are reading this it is because you have a change you want to make, that you have not, as yet, achieved.
Time passes regardless of what we do. You can pass it while engaged in a process that seems “too easy,” but actually creates sustainable change or you can pass it by continuing to not meet your goal and then feeling bad about it.
There is a lot of choice there.
There is a choice between stacking small successes on top of each other to meet larger goals or engaging in a self-fulfilling prophecy of ourselves as “failure.” The choice between trying something new and uncomfortable or remaining where we are, even if we are unhappy with it.
If the change you want to make in your life seems unattainable, consider using The Practice of Practicing to create a staircase that is easier to ascend.
Clearly define your ultimate goal, clearly define the first logical step to take towards that goal. List everything you will need for that first step (including your alternative plan!) and then practice those things.
Perfection is never your goal, simply doing the thing is your goal. Take the pressure off of yourself and then move closer, if even by one step.