I’m talking about the problem of knowing endless information about how to change your life, but not knowing how to implement that information, meaning you never get to actually live that changed life.
This problem strikes in many forms. For lots of people, this endless search for a solution is a form of procrastination. It feels good—productive, almost—to spend time reading articles like the ones on my blog. When you read about how to get more done in a day, you feel better about yourself because you know now that you could get more done in a day, even if you never do.
For many, I think the hunt is for an easy way out. We don’t want to put in the work. We want to continue to be lazy, and we think if we just keep searching, keep reading, one day we’ll find some tip or trick or hack or something that changes everything easily and instantly.
Rather than putting in the work over time, we tell ourselves that once we figure out the right approach, it will be quick and easy and it won’t matter that we spent years looking for the solution. (Spoiler: that hack that you’re looking for doesn’t exist.)
And for others, I suspect that taking those first few steps to see change—like going to the gym for a month or two—isn’t all that difficult, but sticking with it long-term? That’s where the problem lies.
So if you can tell me a dozen different ways to manage your time, and theoretically know what you’d need to do to get healthier, and have an endless list of books that you want to read, even though you haven’t touched a book since college, today is for you.
This blog post is a step by step guide to taking action.
Step 1: Prioritize
If you’re anything like me (or like most of my readers), there’s a good chance that you have a lot of goals. You probably want to eat healthier, drink more water, get more sleep, read more, meditate, work out, save money, perfect your time management skills, wake up earlier, get better grades, become more confident, get more organized, declutter, learn a language… the list goes on.
And while you can eventually get to all of those things, you can’t do all of them at once. Trying to change everything all at once is a recipe for burnout.
I can tell you from experience—and from seeing plenty of other people try—that to be successful at changing your life, you have to start small and take it one step at a time. The first step in figuring out how to change your life is figuring out where to start.
Write down your goals
Before we can get to prioritizing, you have to have a list of things to prioritize. This post about how to align your actions with your priorities can help you explore this in more depth, but basically, take a moment to list everything that you want to change about your life.
It can help to imagine your ideal future self. Spend some time writing everything that you can think of about the person that you want to be one day. What habits do they have? Where do they live? Where do they work? What do they look like? How do they spend their free time?
Figure out what matters most
Like I said, you aren’t going to be able to do all of this at once. You’ll have to pick a starting place. My own journey of self improvement started with wanting to improve my grades, and the first thing that I tackled was getting my time management skills to where they needed to be.
Right off the bat, a few things on your list should stand out as being more important to you than the others. These are probably some of the first things that popped into your head when I said to imagine your ideal future self.
Maybe your ideal future self has some money saved up to travel, meaning your present self needs to consider their spending habits. Or maybe to get to your ideal future self, you need to change careers.
Don’t worry if you feel super intimidated by this change. We’ll get to that later; you’ll be okay. For now, focus on figuring out where you want to start. Changing your life happens one step at a time, and we’re figuring out just the first step.
Also, know that there’s a very good chance that some of these goals will help you reach other goals. Working out and meditating, for example, will help you become more confident. Working on your time management skills will help you get more sleep, read more, and wake up earlier.
In these cases, you can have “become more confident” or “wake up earlier” as your end goal, but meditating and working on your time management skills will come first.
Spend some time thinking about where you are and where you want to be. Maybe even sleep on it. But in the end, aim to come up with one goal that you want to start with.
Step 2: Decide
There is where a lot of people get hung up. Prioritizing is easy. It’s hopeful. It’s fun.
But now I’m asking you to decide to start. Today.
Decide to start today.
The reason that I’m making this its own step is because it can be a lot to tackle. We’re so used to saying, “I’ll start on Monday,” or, “I want to do this thing; maybe I’ll get to it in the fall.”
No more of that.
I know it sounds simple, and it is, but it isn’t easy.
In this decision, not only are you deciding to go after this goal, but you’re also choosing to get uncomfortable. You’re deciding to face fears, put yourself out there, and risk failure.
But your dream life is on the other side of this decision. Success, growth, and a better life are on the other side.
You have to decide to change your life.
And why today? Well, today, you have me here. And if I let you keep putting this off like you have been for who knows how long, then we risk it not happening at all. One year from now, you’ll wish you had started today. We’re doing this for your future self because one day you’ll be that future self. And you’ll be glad that you started today.
Decide to start today. Don’t worry about the discomfort and the flood of fear and excuses. We’ll get to that in a second. For now, decide that you’re going to start making this change today, and sit with that decision for a moment. Embrace it. Get excited. Your life is about to change.
Find your Why
Long-time readers are probably tired of hearing me say this, but it’s important.
Your why is your source of intrinsic motivation. Yes, it’s going to take self-discipline to get through this and change your life, but having a Why will make it all easier. You’ll need much less self discipline if you have a Why.
I strongly recommend reading my entire article about how to find your Why because it dives into all of the details about what does and doesn’t belong on your list of whys and what to do with that list once you’ve made it.
However, if you aren’t going to read that post (you’re missing out), the gist is this: create a list of reasons why you want to go after this goal. Those reasons should all be direct results of this change, and each should resonate with you.
For example, your Why for going to the gym might include things like “it gives me more energy,” “it helps me live longer,” and “it makes me feel more confident.”
Step 3: Face your excuses
I’m sure that when I asked you to decide that today is the day, your brain immediately responded with a flood of excuses.
I don’t know how.
I don’t have time.
What if I fail?
As a reader once told me in response to this post, “excuses don’t stand up to a well-formed plan.” She’s right. Figuring out how to change your life means creating that plan that shuts down your excuses.
So we’re going to defeat those excuses.
First, I want you to list out every excuse you have about why you can’t/don’t want to go after whatever goal it is that you just chose.
Since you’re reading this article, it seems safe to assume that you’ve already struggled to change your life and are looking for help, meaning you’ve made excuses in the past. Write them down. What has previously held you back from going after this goal?
Get creative, because I suspect that your excuses have gotten creative in the past. Think of every time that you’ve said, “I want to do this thing, but…” and write down whatever followed.
You may end up with one big excuse that you use all the time. “I don’t have time,” is a very common one. Or you may end up with a dozen or more small excuses that you rotate through. You may end up with a list of things that seem sort of valid to you. They may seem more like reasons than excuses. Write them down anyway.
Step 4: Plan
The fourth step in how to change your life has a few stages: break it down, get specific, shut down your excuses, and then STOP PLANNING.
I’ll walk you through each of them.
Stage 1: Break it down
Your goal may be to start eating a clean diet, but if you ate a bag of Cheetos for dinner last night and haven’t eaten a vegetable this month, the chances of successfully switching overnight from your current diet to one made primarily of whole foods are slim. Very slim.
Instead, we’re going to take it one step at a time. We’re going to break it down.
Start with the goal that you prioritized in step 1; we’re going to say that goal is Very Hard. In this example, that would be eating almost no processed food and having a clean diet 95% of the time.
Break that down to a goal that is Hard. This goal should be about 75% of the Very Hard goal. In this example, it could be eating clean during the week, but eating whatever you want to eat on weekends.
Then, scale that back to find a Moderate goal. In our example, that could be eating healthy breakfasts and lunches but still eating whatever you want for dinner. Think of this as about 50% of your Very Hard goal.
Next, step it down again. If you had to set an Easy goal, what would it be? Making breakfast for yourself instead of skipping it or grabbing a donut on the way to the office might make an excellent Easy goal.
Finally, break it down one more time to create a Very Easy goal. Your very easy goal should feel so easy that it almost sounds stupid. Something like eating one piece of fruit each day would work.
I want to note that for most people, it’s easier to start doing something than it is to stop doing something. This also puts you in a better mindset. As you’re setting your goals, rather than writing “stop drinking soda,” set a goal like, “carry my water bottle with me at all times.”
Your aim in this stage is to take that big, intimidating goal that you had initially made, and scale it back to something that seems easy. Rather than “get in shape,” your goal could be to put on your gym shoes three times each week.
This concept was inspired largely by Atomic Habits* by James Clear. Check it out if you’re looking for more inspiration. I also listed more examples of how to scale down your goal in the supplementary workbook.
Stage 2: Get specific
Now that you know what you’re going to do, you need to figure out exactly when, where, and how it’s going to happen. This is where we really get into the planning thing.
So often, when we want to change our lives, we spend time planning, but it’s the wrong kind of plan. Rather than getting into the nitty-gritty details, we instead focus on the big picture. Now, focusing on the big picture isn’t always a bad thing (See: The 5-4-3-2-1 Method for Setting Goals). We need a little big-picture perspective to get to where we want to go.
But when you neglect to plan the details, it’s unlikely that anything is really going to happen. It’s great if you want to work out more, but if you don’t look at your calendar and figure out when you’re going to work out, and then take the time to decide what workout you’re going to do, the chances of you actually working out more go way, wayyy down.
Consider the Very Easy goal that you created in stage 1. What do you need to do to make that happen? You may need to go to the store and pick up fruit for the day. You may need to sign up for a gym membership. Whatever it is, it shouldn’t be a monumental task. Ideally, it takes only a few minutes.
Then, look at your calendar. (If you’re not using a calendar, get on it.) Schedule a specific time on the calendar to do your Very Easy goal. When are you going to go buy that fruit? When are you going to meditate? When are you going to read? Figure out, down to the minute, when you plan to do these things, and write it down.
Stage 3: Shut down your excuses
We made that list of excuses earlier. Now what?
Well, if those excuses have come up before, they’re likely to come up again. They may not show up the first time you go to take action. Maybe they don’t show up again until a month down the road. But the chances that you never make another excuse again are 0, so we need a plan for dealing with those excuses.
A little bit of planning while you’re feeling motivated can save your butt down the line when you don’t feel like putting in the work.
For each excuse on your list of excuses, write down what you’ll do when you want to make that excuses. For example, if you’re trying to work out more but often find yourself saying that you don’t have enough time, come up with a solution to that. Maybe when you find that you don’t have enough time for a full gym session, you could do a 7 minute ab workout or a 15 minute yoga video instead.
Your excuses are just that: excuses. They’re not true. They won’t stand up to a well-formed plan. It may take a little more planning to fight through some than others, but eventually, they will fall. Create your plan now so that you know what to do when those excuses pop up.
Stage 4: STOP PLANNING
A little bit of planning is great. A little bit of planning can be (and often is) the difference between failure and success. But too much planning? Too much planning has a name: procrastination.
As much as you might want to, as much as you think it will ease your fears and help you be successful, you shouldn’t—and, in fact, can’t—make a plan to get from where you are now to your ultimate end goal.
It’s a waste of time.
From where you are now, with the knowledge that you have now, there are so many unpredictable variables between your current state and your goal that trying to plan for all of them is literally impossible.
You don’t even know what you don’t know—but don’t let that scare you.
You don’t have to change everything all at once. You live your life one moment at a time. The only thing that you can change is this moment. And all of those things that you don’t know about? They aren’t all going to happen right in this moment.
They also won’t be nearly as bad or as unmanageable as you think. Once you’ve started taking action and seen where your roadblocks are, it will likely be necessary to do more planning to work past them. We will get to that. Right now, your focus is on getting started.
Now, there are plenty of goals where taking time to plan is an important part of reaching that goal. If you’re opening a business, it will take plenty of planning and research. In these instances, planning is a form of action.
But unless planning actively moves you toward your desired goal, it’s procrastination.
If you’ve been following along with this article, and filling in the workbook, you have reached the point where it is time to stop planning.
Focus on taking that first step before you plan out the 30th, because if you never take the first step, it doesn’t matter how much you know about the last.
Step 5: GO!
We’ve made it to go time! You have a plan, you know when and where and how to implement that plan, and now it’s time to do it. This is the most important step. Quite literally, this is the thing that will change your life.
This is the moment we’ve been working toward. This is when you go for that run, eat that piece of fruit, check your planner throughout the day, start editing your resume, whatever.
We put a plan in place, but there are still some things that you can do to make yourself more likely to act. These strategies are not one-size-fits-all (nothing is), so you’ll have to pick and choose which ones work for you.
Find a way to commit yourself to something that will force you into action. See if one of your friends wants to be your accountability buddy. Sign up for an early class at the gym so you have to be awake and out of bed by a certain time.
This strategy works best for Obligers*, but that isn’t to say that other people can’t use it as well. Maybe you have no trouble working out several times each week, but you can’t seem to get yourself to go to bed on time no matter what you try. Roping in a friend or installing an app blocker on your phone might serve as the little push that you need to finally make a change.
This is probably my most-used strategy when I’m trying to create a change in my own life.
When I’m struggling to create a new habit or go after a new goal, I’ll think of a reward that I want. Often, it will be an item that I’ve been wanting for a long time, like a tapestry for my apartment or a new pair of shoes.
Then, I’ll decide on a way to earn that reward. Typically, this is a certain number of repetitions of the habit. For example, when I first started working out, ten trips to the gym earned me a new decoration for my apartment.
You can find all of the details about that in the last strategy in this post, as well as a few other ways to gamify your habits to make productivity more exciting.
Just do it.
Nike knows what’s up.
Something that you have to realize in order to change your life is that no one can change it for you. No one else can make you do anything. You have to be the one to make it happen.
Practice pushing yourself to act. When you come home and want to throw your coat over the side of the couch instead of hanging it up, push yourself to hang it up. Push yourself to do the dishes daily instead of twice a week.
The more often you push yourself to just do it, the better you’ll get at it.
This is why we made that first step as small as possible—so it’s easier to make it happen. There’s nothing left to do but do. Use your plan, fight your excuses, and do it even if you don’t want to.
Success means getting uncomfortable sometimes. There’s no way around it. You’re going to have to push yourself to act even when you don’t want to. How you feel can’t dictate your actions 100% of the time.
Focus on that tiny, Very Easy first step, and just do it.
Step 6: Follow through
As much as we wish it weren’t true, success doesn’t happen overnight. To reach your goal, you’re going to have to not only stick with your Very Easy goal, but also start incorporating other new habits as well. You have to follow through.
There are a few things that you should know to make this easier.
Bad days happen
Sometimes you’re going to miss a day when you were supposed to do your new habit. You’re not going to want to do it. You’ll get really busy or lazy or go through a rough patch and fall off the wagon.
It happens. It’s okay.
Rather than losing your momentum and getting down on yourself, instead focus on getting back on the wagon as quickly as possible. Challenge yourself to prevent one missed day from turning into two. Prevent two missed days from turning into three.
Just because you had an off day or an off week or an off month does not mean that you’ve failed. You’ve just hit a rough patch, and it will be okay. Take it one step at a time and get back into the routine.
Take time to reflect
Remember when I said earlier that you don’t currently know everything that you need to know to plan out your whole journey? Well, you’ll start learning those things very soon. As you take action, you’ll quickly learn what does and does not work for you. You’ll be able to make a better plan to get where you want to go as quickly as possible.
But that only happens if you take time to stop and reflect. I do this as part of my weekly review. Set aside a time that works for you where you can ask yourself some questions about your progress and change what needs to be changed.
Take time to reflect on what isn’t working and why it’s not working. If you picked up a new workout that you’re supposed to do three times each week, but you hate that workout, you aren’t going to stick with it for long. Before you fall off the wagon, stop, reflect, and search for a new workout that you enjoy doing.
Go back to basics
If you’re really struggling, go back to step one. Work your way through the process again and take what you’ve learned so far into account so that you have more success on the second iteration. If necessary, do it a third time.
Figure out where the sticking point is. Make a new plan. Face the new excuse. Break the new hurdle down into something that you can manage.
If you were doing a good job for a few months and then started struggling to stay consistent, revisiting these steps can help you set yourself up with a new baseline and a new Why. Your capabilities will change over time, and there’s no shame in modifying your routine to fit your new place in life. In fact, it’s encouraged.
But in the end, know that there will be times where you struggle. That is both normal and okay. It doesn’t make you a failure, and it doesn’t mean that you aren’t still going after your dream life.
When do I become my ideal future self?
That’s a tough question with an answer that you may not like: Never.
But that isn’t because you won’t reach all of those goals that you set out in the beginning. If you’re consistent, there’s a good chance that you will.
It’s because your goals will grow and change with you. You might currently be aiming to lose fifty pounds, but on your journey to do that, you discover that you love rock climbing. Suddenly your ideal future self is someone who wants to climb El Capitan. Your goals grow.
In the end, that’s the fun of it. Set goals, work towards them, celebrate the wins along the way, and continue to grow. When you reach the goal that you set today, come back to this strategy and use it to set the next one. This is an iterative process.
If that sounds a little unsatisfying, I’m going to let you in on a secret: happiness exists in the present moment.
While you’re working toward your goals, practice mindfulness. Stop and enjoy the present moment. Don’t put your happiness on hold and tell yourself that you’ll be happy when X thing happens.
Find happiness in the present moment, because the present moment is all that you have. As soon as you reach your “I’ll be happy when” goal, you’ll set a new one. This is how people work.
– Life By Grit