Joseph F. McCaffrey MD, FACS


Making Changes - The Two Ways To Do It

definition of changeBroadly speaking, there are two ways to make change happen.

One is to make small, steady, cumulative changes evaluating the results as you go.

The other way is to make sudden, dramatic changes. Such changes are the equivalent of a quantum change in physics - going suddenly from one quantum phase to another with no intermediate step.

Although many people think they might like the second route of sudden dramatic changes because they may see results quicker, in most situations I recommend the first approach.

Most of the time slow and steady does, in fact, win the race. I have a few reasons for this recommendation.

First, quantum changes tend to be uncomfortable. The very fact that we recognize it as a quantum change means it's distinctly different from where we are now. That means there'll be a period of adaptation as we adjust.

Quantum change isn't always bad, but it almost always is uncomfortable.

For example, when my son Jon spent a year abroad in Italy he made a quantum change. One morning he boarded the plane in Syracuse and within 24 hours was immersed in an entirely different country, family situation, culture and language. It proved to be a wonderful experience for him. 

He never complained, but we later found out that he had to overcome some definite challenges the first few months. Quantum changes can be tough going.

Another challenge with quantum changes is that they can seem intimidating. We can get the idea that the changes are difficult or close to impossible to make. Too often we get discouraged before we even try.

Compare this to small changes. By definition they're small. They feel accessible and possible. We can do them with moderately little commitment and discipline. As we progress on the path of development, they often feel like the next logical step.

Another benefit of making a series of small changes is that we can correct course relatively easily. Since none of us is perfect, it's unlikely that all our decisions will be perfect. If we make a "quantum" decision that turns out wrong (say, quitting our job and moving to the other side of the country to try to begin a career in an area we have no experience in) it can be difficult to reverse it. It's likely to be an uncomfortable period in our life.

Obviously, we could learn from such an experience but we might decide we'd rather not.

On the other hand, small changes, by the very fact that  they are small, are usually simple to undo. We simply evaluate the results, make a new choice and go in another direction.

Just because the choice is small doesn't mean its long-term effect will be. I'm sure you can think of an example of some small choice you made in the past that had important long-term consequences. Maybe it was something like a book you read or new project you took on at work, but it led to outcomes you never could have anticipated.

Also keep in mind that series of small changes can build upon each other. Let's take the example of somebody eating a completely unhealthy diet. They've taken an assessment of their life, realize that they don't want to pay the long-term health consequences of poor diet and want to change.

The quantum approach would be to plan what they consider a healthy diet and try to make a complete, sudden change to that way of eating all at once. It might work for some people but most would have trouble doing it.

The other approach would be to make small changes that are quite doable. With this approach the person trying to make dietary changes might decide to begin with improving their breakfast.

If, like a lot of people, they either skip breakfast because they were "too busy" or eat something like junk cereal or a doughnut and coffee for breakfast they might commit to eating a high fiber cereal with some blueberries on top every morning.

That's not a huge change, but it's definitely significant. It's also a start they can build on.

Next they might decide to have a piece of fruit and a few nuts for a midmorning snack rather than another doughnut or a candy bar.

Another small step would be to look for healthier versions of favorite recipes.

One of my favorite parts of cooking magazines like Eating Well or Clean Eating when they have effective recipe makeovers. One I remember particularly liking was a chicken and broccoli casserole.

The original version was close to being poisonous because it was so heavy with butter and cream. The sauce in the makeover was a much healthier version yet still extremely tasty and as easy to make. The chicken provides a lean source of protein and of course broccoli is an excellent vegetable to include in your diet.

It’s a good recipe to have in your repertoire.

Notice that someone can make a change like that without feeling deprived at all. It just takes a little bit of effort to do the research and learn the recipe. Once that's done, it's as easy as eating the old way.

In this example, another small step they might decide to do is to look for ways to reduce their calorie intake by 100 calories each day. 100 calories isn't much - most candy bars and bags of chips each have well over 200 calories.

Even though 100 calories isn't much, 100 calories a day adds up to about 10 pounds of body fat over the course of a year. All other things being equal, if you eat 100 calories more than you need, you'll gain 10 pounds. If you eat 100 calories less than you need, you'll lose 10 pounds

You can see that each of the changes I'm talking about in this example is small and doable. As each step becomes second nature and a habit, the person can consider what next step they want to make. In a relatively short time the cumulative change can be as dramatic as a quantum change.

I've used improving the person's diet as an example. The same approach can be applied to other areas.

You can start an exercise program by getting off the elevator at work before early and walking the last flight. You can find time for reading and spending time with your family by watching an hour less of television. You can listen to a book on CD or even a college course while driving in your car instead of listening to pop radio.

As you may remember, I like to use the metaphor of living life as a work of art in progress. Looking for an area that you would like to make better and refining it in some way is part of that process. It requires knowing what you want, periodically evaluating where you are and then looking for some small step you can take right away.

If you really want to make a quantum leap, go for it. Sometimes the drama can be fun.

Just keep in mind that over time the cumulative effect of multiple small steps can be as powerful.

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