Go big or go home? Or make little changes?

Small changes can add up. For example, say you want to have more money (ideally to pay down debt, save for retirement, or go on a vacation). If you switched to a cash-back credit card, brought home lunch and beverage to work/school every day or every other day, and  made a few other tweaks, the savings could really add up over the year.

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The key to making this change successful might be not in the actual actions of getting the new credit card and in getting up 5 minutes early to make lunch every Tuesday and Thursday. The key may be to *not* check your bank account every day. Small changes take a lot of time to add up. So maybe check your accumulated savings every quarter or every six months. Know, expect, accept that your goal is longer-term. Trust that you are on the right path.

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With life changes, such as building self-compassion–which involves taming your inner-critic through self-acceptance; caring for your physical, mental, emotional, relational, and spiritual health; etc.–you also cannot see the changes from one day to the next. You have to be committed to the process and trust that it’s working. It does help to have feedback from a trusted other, such as therapist, doctor (GP), significant other, or from some other baseline.

For example, you know how much money you had in the bank to start with or how much debt you had, so you are able to check in every few months to see the number change. With life changes, you need a similar way to measure your “progress.” For self-compassion, expert Kristin Neff kindly offers an online quiz for free that you can take; and then devote, say, 15 minutes per day to learning and practicing self-compassion (I’m reading Christopher Germer’s book _the mindful path to self-compassion_); and then take the quiz again in a month or two to gauge your progress.

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If this “progress by drips and drabs” is not your style, you can consider if “going big” is possible. For example, if you want to wipe out that debt more quickly or jump-start your retirement saving faster or need money to fix your car soon, then you might take more radical steps to saving money, such as not eating out, switching to bargain brands, shopping second-hand, and, even more drastically, pursuing a less expensive lifestyle (downsize your living quarters, vehicle, phone/cable/subscriptions, etc.) or increasing your income (the fastest way would be to ask your boss for a raise based on your merits–not because you need money–or to get a second job that doesn’t interfere with your primary source of income).

You might start seeing the payoff in increments of weeks instead of years or months. But what about with health changes, such as losing weight or improving your emotional well-being? Going big may be risky or impossible and should probably be discussed with a professional, such as medical doctor or therapist first.

For example, drastic changes in caloric intake, for example, can cause your body to conserve calories and stall your weight or even gain weight. Quitting a habit or substance cold turkey might cause unwanted side effects, whereas a slower, supervised weaning might be more tolerable.

And many emotional and behavioral changes cannot be overturned faster simply by force or effort. If only that were an option! If only I could speed up the retraining of my neuropathways so that I don’t listen for danger at all times, so that my OCD doesn’t decide that while I’m asleep is the perfect time to marinate in obsessions, so that I don’t feel paralyzing shame every time I make a mistake that negatively impacts someone else.

Alas, it has taken decades of my surviving to become who I am this moment, and it will take years or decades of dedicated work to alter my habits, if my condition will ever improve. Ironically, according to Dr. Germer, the more we change with the expectation of self-improvement, the more slowly we improve ourselves. Resisting, whether the pace of change or the experiencing of unpleasant emotions, simply multiplies the unpleasantness!

One proof is found in the fact that most people pursue pleasure and avoid pain, and Dr. Germer asserts that both actions are harmful. Here’s why:

Pain is an inevitable part of life, so even when we try to avoid it, it will come. That makes us feel like we’re doing it wrong and that life sucks. Also, pleasure is fleeting–like pain and all other emotions–and so when it ends, we feel like we’re doing it wrong and that life sucks. The solution, says Dr. Germer, is to teach ourselves that all emotions pass like clouds in the sky. First, we notice how we’re feeling. Then we check in with ourselves later that day or the next day and learn that our feelings have changed. We learn to tolerate unpleasant feelings. Then we learn to befriend them–and all feelings.

Feelings aren’t right or wrong. They are natural, like clouds, and we will have them whether we want to or not. Feel your feelings now, in real time and with awareness and acceptance, or feel them later, when they lack context and can overwhelm you. Either way, they will be felt. You can’t stop the clouds from coming. And there’s no need to.

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I understand the impulse to “go big or go home.” I feel it as impatience, annoyance. My goal is to let that feeling come. To tell the parts of me that are wanting things to be different that they are not doing it wrong. To befriend the “go big” urge and use it as motivation to keep my drips and drabs going every day. To know that each time I practice my new skills, I am one practice closer to my goals. Every bit of impatience is a reminder to keep going, that I am on the right path.

I hope you can find satisfaction with your little changes when it is impossible to go big.

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