What Real Change Looks Like

How to survive the first weeks of changing a habit

Posted Feb 03, 2020

CC/Pexels
Source: CC/Pexels

There is no shortage of advice on the internet. Regardless of which habit you want to change, there are more articles and videos out there on “getting faster and more reliable results” than you would ever be able to consume in a single lifetime.

And yet, most of us still struggle to stick to our resolutions. It’s not that the advice is wrong (although very often it is), but that it’s hard to imagine what real change looks like—especially in the first few weeks.

Over the years, I’ve guided countless people to set new resolutions. And I’ve noticed a pattern among those who succeed in changing their habits and those that do not. 

In the following, I will walk you through this pattern and show you what the first four weeks of making a change can look like, including how to get started, how to progress, how to get back on track, and everything in between. So without further ado, let’s get started.

Week 0 — Start With Values

Even before you begin, get clear on why the change matters. Make it a values-based choice. I’ve written a great deal on how to do this. So if this sounds completely new to you, my book, A Liberated Mind, offers a great many techniques and exercises to figure out your values and how to let them inform your choices. Once your choice of change reflects your values, you can get started.

Week 1 — Get Started

The first week of changing a habit is often the hardest. The mind is still full of doubt as to whether real change is actually possible. The new habit might feel weird and alien. And the new action can be a far stretch from your current lifestyle. For instance, if you spend most of your days crouched behind a laptop, it can be a far stretch to start joining the gym.

Luckily, all of the above is perfectly fine. The first week is not about having no doubts. It’s not about feeling energized and motivated. And it’s certainly not about reinventing your entire lifestyle on the spot. 

Instead, it’s about only one thing: Taking new action. The first week is about getting up and doing something different—regardless of how small, unbalanced, and chaotic the first steps may be. Do something. 

This is not about achieving perfection right away. The elaborate strategies and techniques come later. Instead, it’s about getting up and taking a small step in the right direction. 

If you want to exercise more, get in your workout clothes and start doing jumping jacks for 30 seconds. If you want to get on a diet, clean out your kitchen cabinet of all sweets. If you want to read more books, grab the nearest one and start reading just one page. It’s not about perfection, but about getting started.

Week 2 — Get a Plan

In the second week, you have gained some new experience. Chances are, you did not fully act according to your intentions, and that’s fine. However, with this new experience you have gained during the first week, you can now set up a plan for the second week.

The key to a good plan is to make it S.M.A.R.T. This means you want to set up a plan that is Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Results-focused, and Time-bound. This means in particular:

Instead of “getting more fit,” it’s better to choose a specific goal, like “losing weight.” 

Instead of “waking up earlier,” it’s better to choose a measurable goal, like “waking up at 6.30 a.m.”

Instead of “running 30 minutes three times a week,” it’s better to choose an attainable goal, like “going for a 10-minute run twice a week.”

Instead of “Improving my grades,” it’s better to choose a results-focused goal, like “getting a B or higher on the next exam.”

Instead of “reading more books,” it’s better to choose a time-bound goal, like “reading 10 books by the end of the year.”

When you design a S.M.A.R.T. plan, you dramatically increase your odds of succeeding with your new habit. So set up a SMART plan, and become more methodical about your new habit. And then put your new plan to the test during the second week.

Week 3 — Refine the Plan

Welcome to the third week. You now have two weeks of experience with changing your habits. And maybe everything went according to plan, and you have a perfect track record. And then again, maybe not, and everything went terribly, horribly wrong.

If it’s the former, great! And if it’s the latter, it’s all right. As long as you continue, you can and will improve.

During the third week, we will use what you have learned during the first two weeks and improve your strategy. This means you will have to take an honest look at yourself and answer the following questions:

What worked well for you?

What did not work for you?

And what can you do differently for the next week to do better?

Questions like the ones above can be tiring, and it’s easy to skip them. However, they also contain important insights that are crucial to your success. So don’t rob yourself of these lessons; grab a pen and paper, and write down your answers to these questions.

Afterward, you will have a slightly adjusted plan that works just a bit better. If you are unsure about how to improve your plan, there are countless techniques and strategies available to you. You will learn which one works best for you through experimentation. Again, we’re not aiming for perfection, but for doing just a tiny bit better than before. Pick a strategy, adjust your plan, and enter the third week. 

Week 4 — Refine Even Further

Welcome to the fourth week. You now have three weeks of experience with changing your habits. And if you’re still showing up and putting in the effort, you are good to continue. 

You may already be able to enjoy some fruits of your labor. Maybe you have read your first book, lost a few pounds, and built some more muscles. And even if the change is not visible to other people, it may be noticeable for you. If you do notice a change, enjoy it!

The big challenge at this point is not to become complacent and revert back to old patterns. The new habit may have lost some appeal because it’s no longer the cool new “thing” that you do, but your new reality. So don’t stop now, but continue to move further.

This means going back to the drawing board and asking yourself the tough questions once more:

What worked well for you?

What did not work for you?

And what can you do differently for the next week to do better?

Small adjustments to your plan every single week will put you on a path towards real change. Bit by bit. If you want to make your plan even more foolproof, you can also add the following question:

On a scale of 1 to 10, how certain are you that you will follow through?

If you are at an 8 or above, great! Take your plan and put it into action during the next week. And if you are at a 7 or below, adjust your plan until you increase your certainty to an 8 or above. Again, this step is a bit tedious, but it’s crucial to your long-term success.

From here on, each following week follows the same formula of week four. Check-in with yourself and your underlying values choices, reflect on your steps, and adjust your plan a tiny bit each time. Real change is not about making one gigantic leap, but about continuous effort, one small step after the other.