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What’s the Best Way to Change?

Should we transform gradually or quickly?

Key points

  • People often approach change with unrealistic expectations that eventually lead to frustration.
  • Changing incrementally over time is easier to maintain, giving one a better chance at long-term success.
  • Some situations demand sudden, radical change, but they are quite rare.
Opening to Change
Source: heroic/shutterstock

We tend to think of personal change with an all-or-nothing approach. If I wish to become vegan, I may think, "I need immediately stop eating meat and using milk products." If I want to improve my physical activity, I may think, "I need to start running or going to the gym every day." Or, if I want to meditate, I may think, "I need to start practicing for 60 minutes daily."

This is an unhealthy approach that frequently backfires. It creates unrealistic expectations which trigger frustration when things do not work out, causing us to become demotivated.

The reality of change

In reality, change takes time. Changing in small steps is more realistic, feasible to achieve, and most importantly, easier to maintain so that it becomes a long-term change.

I do not dismiss powerful moments of change. Some problems and challenges demand sudden, radical change—and that’s ok. I’m just saying that these situations are quite rare and that in most cases, incremental changes are a healthier way to transform.

For me, changing in small steps simply works better. I’ll give you an example: I became curious about the benefits of "cold showers"—you might have heard of the Wim Hof Method. It’s a method that is supposed to build our resilience. So I thought, “Let’s try it out." I love playing with new experiences to see how they affect my well-being.

Originally, I tried it by going into the shower and turning on only the cold-water tap. The water was super cold and it was a terrible experience. I remember thinking, “Who is the crazy person that would voluntarily do that to themselves?" It was so painful and uncomfortable that I stopped doing it after a couple of tries.

A few years later, I realized that I went too far too fast—and instead tried the gradual approach. I started with my normal hot shower, and only at the end would I try a short cold shower. And even then, I started with cold-ish and gradually made my way towards really cold water.

It worked. I slowly built a relationship with cold showers. Since then, we've gotten divorced—me and cold showers—so I'm not doing them anymore. But the point is that gradual change worked much better than a full-on approach.

Source: Heoric/shutterstock

So, say for example you wish to start meditating regularly. Great, you are offering yourself a wonderful gift.

You might start meditating and find that you can sit for 30 minutes without any challenges. That would amazing. If that happens to you, that’s great—and it's also unusual. Most people starting to meditate would find it challenging when they begin. Sitting to practice right at the beginning for 30 or 60 minutes might be the equivalent of me starting the shower with freezing cold water—it's just too uncomfortable, which makes it easy to say, “Aw, this isn’t right for me."

So do it gradually.

A 3-stage process for change

I'm a very organized person, so in this example, I'd start with short meditations and let them increase with time, using a three-stage process.

  • The first week, I would add “2 minutes of meditation” to my to-do list or calendar—once per day.
  • The second week, I would add the task of “5 minutes of meditation” daily.
  • The third week, I would make the task “10 minutes of meditation” daily.

Then, you can see whether you wish to make it longer or shorter.

This gradual meditation practice is just an example. You could apply this example to any transformation process: changing your physical activity, changing your diet, changing your priorities, changing your self-talk, changing your friends, changing the time you spend online, retraining your mind. You could apply it to anything you wish to change in your life.

Why it's better to change slowly

Now, why, from a psychological point of view, is it better to change in small increments? There are a number of different reasons, and the most prominent one is self-efficacy.

Self-efficacy is your belief in your ability to have control over your behavior and events in your life. In other words, whether or not you believe that you can do something. I'm sure you realize how important this is—it's the foundation for your motivation. If you believe you can do it, you are motivated—and the other way around.

If you start big, full-on, like 60 minutes of meditation—and it doesn’t feel good (you might even stop before the allocated time)—you decrease your self-efficacy. That means you reduce your belief in your ability to practice meditation. On the other hand, if you practice gradually, starting with only two or five minutes, being able to complete the practice quite comfortably, then you increase your self-efficacy. In other words, you increase your belief that you can do it, which then increases your motivation to practice.

This psychological process could be applied to any change you wish to implement in your life.

Gradual versus fast change is an important topic to consider as we grow and transform. I hope it will now become easier for you to find a healthy, gradual, way to implement the change you want.

I invite you to think about your own pattern when it comes to changes in your life—do you tend to jump all-in, or do you gradually change? And does your pattern serve you in your personal journey of transformation?

I am sending you strength and courage for the journey ahead.

More from Itai Ivtzan Ph.D.
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