When reflecting on your life and the changes you want to make or the goals you want to achieve it’s easy to look at all of the things you need to do, the list is usually quite extensive. What happens next though is often one of two things: You are immediately discouraged and overwhelmed by how much there is to do and start to lose track of it all because of how big the list gets and end up not making any changes or, the other common course, you have a ton of motivation, maybe even make a physical list and get inspired but a week later fall back into old habits feelings defeated and, again, overwhelmed. There’s a lesson to be learned about the mind here. The mind often takes in its surroundings, it’s circumstances, and gains an understanding of how it wants things to be. This is an extremely useful thing and has been throughout the evolution of our species; it’s one of our greatest tools. However, what often needs to be learned is that while the mind can visualize all of the changes at once it takes actual effort and time to reach those changes which is an entirely different experience than the idealization of them. What needs to be developed to actually achieve our goals and make the changes we want is patience, determination, and an ability to constantly reflect on and be motivated by that idealization. Even with these things, however, the actual process of moving towards this new place in life we desire is a heavy task and we can still often be overwhelmed. The question becomes, how, then, can we make these things happen if it seems like there is so damn much to do? It’s funny how often cliches apply: one thing at a time.
I wrote a post a while back talking about how we can “write our own program”. How we can rewire the mind to work for us, our goals, and our dreams. This is the key to achieving what we want. It’s easy to look at everything we know we need to do and think that it’s a matter of just doing each individual thing but the human mind and experience is more complicated than that. We get tired, we get, yes, overwhelmed, we get frustrated, we get lazy and we go right back to doing what we have always done. This curse, if you will, is also the hack to greatness if correctly understood. You see, the human experience isn’t often revealing of the underlying pathways in the brain that guide us. Our habits. Our moment-to-moment experience is often deceiving in that it seems like we should just be able to do something when we want to but we are limited by the physical thing giving rise to our experience in the first place, our brain. The process of the brain is based on pathways that have been well established. In other words, the brain naturally takes the path of least resistance. However, because we are self-conscious beings we are not only able to notice what our pathways are but work to change them. We are able to create our own force of nature. On the level of the brain, this ability is called neuroplasticity. The ability of our mind to create new pathways and stop using old ones. How this manifests itself in experience is through our habits.
These habits can be habits that go all the way down to moment-to-moment differences in how we process and respond to information all the way up to a daily routine. Now that we understand this ability and how this works, how can we actually go about using it? One habit at a time. Because it takes effort and constant attention to shift these pathways and consequently habits, the best thing we can do is take them one a time. This gives us the ability to build confidence in our capacity to make the changes we want to without getting overwhelmed because we aren’t trying to change a bunch of things all at once. While it may seem frustrating at first that it takes this much time and effort to change, this is the time to reflect on the vision and motivation that vision gives you. You want those changes. You know they will be better than the current life you are living, that’s what started you on this path to begin with. Not only will it be rewarding to reach these goals but the journey itself is also extremely rewarding. Being able to prove to yourself that you can make these changes, that you have the potential for change, is an amazing experience that further fuels you to make this change and may even fuel you to make changes and achieve goals you hadn’t even thought possible or thought about at all beforehand.
To end here I want to give you a framework I’ve found extremely beneficial in pursuing and sorting out changes you want to continue to make. It turns out the guiding principles for this are pretty straight-forward and were actually laid out thousands of years ago by someone named Siddhartha Gautama: the Buddha. If you’ve ever learned anything about the Buddha’s teachings you’ve probably heard about the Eightfold Path. This is the central model of his teachings that everything else is based on. Number six of the path is ‘Right Effort’. If you read into his specific teachings on Right Effort he broke it down into four simple teachings. Start good habits, stop bad habits, don’t stop current good habits, don’t start new bad habits. Now, while this teaching was in the context of reaching spiritual awakening these rules can easily be transplanted into any goal or an overall method of improving life. I find it immensely useful to refer to these simple but fundamental principles when evaluating my life and what I may want to change. It serves as a simple reminder to fall back on whenever you’re feeling lost or overwhelmed. It’s as simple as these four rules and by breaking down your current habits and habits you’re considering or are seeing come on into these categories you can easily decide what you need to and want to work on next.
The truth is, we are slaves to our habits. But since we have the ability to write our own habits we can achieve a sort of freedom by doing so. To quote the common platitude you hear from self-help books ‘You are the author of your own life.’ This seemingly abstract saying is actually a very scientific one when understood correctly. We get to choose what we want to do in our lives, who we want to be, and it’s all as simple as re-writing your habits one at a time. To make any change in your life, big or small, it’s as simple as starting with one thing. Once you achieve that you can not only move onto the next one but you also instill confidence in yourself that you can do more, you give yourself further motivation to do the next one and the next one and most-likely ones you hadn’t even considered when you started this journey. To reiterate: whenever you are feeling overwhelmed by everything you want to do and achieve, just remember it all starts with one change and continues with stacking those one changes: By working on one habit at a time.