Small Change: A Better Way to a Better You

Susan & Larry Terkel


“Small changes can get us back on course as easily as they can lead us off course.”


Small change adds up

This is worth repeating: small change adds up. Empty your small change into a jar every day, and watch the total add up over time. Make small changes in your daily habits – such as your meals or snacks, your relationships, your work or your leisure – and watch those changes gradually accumulate into a much healthier, happier and more satisfying life.

An angle of only one degree is difficult to draw on a piece of paper. It is too small. If, however, a flight from New York to Los Angeles is off course by just one degree, the plane will arrive closer to Tijuana, Mexico than Los Angeles. The farther it travels, the more widely it misses its destination. This is what happens to us in life. We drift off course. What once seemed like a fabulous job has become tedious or frustrating. What was once a great relationship has lost its luster. The body has drifted out of shape. Like the pilot, we find ourselves off course.

What are we to do? Many advice-givers say to change direction completely. These advisers usually suggest radical changes or big makeovers. Returning to the New York – Los Angeles flight analogy, the advisers might say to change planes in Chicago. Worse, they might even suggest that the pilot return to New York and start over!

But there is good news. Small changes can get us back on course as easily as they can lead us off course. Either for you or against you, small change adds up. Here is more good news. Your life is probably not as big a mess as you think. You are not bad, weak, unlovable or out of control. People in search of self-improvement are usually just off course. Our transcontinental pilot needs to make only small adjustments along the way in order to arrive at the desired destination.

Small changes provide multiple benefits. Making small changes can be fun. Small changes can provide a sense of accomplishment for people who think they lack willpower. Small changes foster self-acceptance for people who criticize themselves for failing to make big changes. Small changes make it possible to modify a pleasurable habit rather than give it up altogether. And for those who see life as a series of lessons and opportunities – not a series of mistakes and inadequacies – small changes are a great way to put this philosophy into practice.

Aiming for big changes that are difficult to accomplish often results in no change at all. Worse, you may be left with a sense of failure and inadequacy that can be painful and unwarranted. A small change is always better than no change at all. Modest success is always better than failure and pain. By acquiring the habit of making small changes, you can build those moderate successes into dramatic results – because small changes will add up.

With an emphasis on the importance of daily habits, and some simple recipes for improving them, we offer you a fresh perspective on the timeless quest for sustainable self-improvement – a simple, powerful, better way to a better you. Here is just one of the many ways to make small changes.

Passionate Pursuits
Take a moment to reflect on your life and think about those times when you find yourself so focused that you lose track of the clock. You are stretching your mind, expanding your creativity or acquiring expertise in an area. When you are engaged in what we call a “passionate pursuit,” your mind is calm and alert, much the way a chess master seems to be during a championship game. There may be outside rewards for such activities, from spotlights to money. Mostly, though, because engagement in passionate pursuits makes us feel so deliciously alive, at times ecstatic, we do them just for the sake of doing them.

We experience some passionate pursuits as relaxing, others stimulating and challenging. All inspire us to learn more, master a skill, to be more creative and occasionally to soar past our limitations. (Ask a golfer who first breaks 100, 90 or 80 how he or she is feeling about life.)

Make one of your small changes an effort to discover a passionate pursuit – an activity, hobby or subject where time will stand still and you will be totally absorbed, if only for a few minutes each day. The best passionate pursuits lie somewhere between easy and too difficult. Too easy and you get bored; too difficult and you get frustrated. Allow yourself to pursue this new pursuit with a passion — and with no guilt, either. Being alive, working hard and shouldering responsibilities the rest of the day entitles you to spend time devoted to a passionate pursuit.

If work is your passionate pursuit, count your blessings and go on to a different small change. If it isn’t or if you have outgrown a job that used to excite you, find a leisure pursuit you can love, one that is challenging but enjoyable (the key here is enjoyable). If you like drawing, painting, playing the guitar or singing, for example, commit to sketching or painting or strumming or warbling. Once you have made the commitment, carve out time from your day or week to honor the commitment to yourself. To many of you, given your busy schedules, this small change may seem like a big challenge or indulgence. Passionate pursuits do not have to take up a lot of time (though when you love doing them, it rarely feels as if there is enough time for them). Spend just a few minutes a day if that is all you can spare, but commit to those few minutes.

Nor does a passionate pursuit have to be costly. Be creative here and consider one of our favorite mottos: Find a Way, or Make a Way. Have you always wanted to learn to play the piano but lacked the money for lessons or the piano? Take the month to scout around for a used keyboard and perhaps someone with whom you can barter for lessons.

Susan, for example, wanted to learn to use a knitting machine but couldn’t afford a new one. The day she decided to pursue this passion, she asked every single person she met if they knew anyone who had a used knitting machine. Within a few hours, someone did know someone who had quit a sweater-craft business. Within two days, Susan had the machine set up in her painting studio. She spent the better part of the month learning how to use it, along with learning how to design custom patterns. For the rest of the winter, Susan stole time to design sweaters, search out yarn, knit, read about knitting – all this with much passion. The lesson here: set your sights, and then be creative about how to reach them. (And use that magic word: ask.)

If you already have a passionate pursuit, your small change might be finding a way to bring it to a new level. For instance, if you are passionate about jigsaw puzzles, as our friend Andrea is, then switch to crafting them yourself for a greater challenge. Do you like to grow vegetables or roses? Commit to learning about vintage varieties by reading about them, finding a local group, or starting one as Fred and Linda did. They even organized group tours to farms that grow vintage varieties.

When you have more time to commit, such as a long weekend or vacation, use it to indulge yourself in your passionate pursuit. Larry often uses a long weekend or vacation to learn more about yoga, while our friend Katie devotes some of her vacation to indulging her love of knitting. Our friend Ron devotes a portion of his vacation to pursuing his passion for family genealogy, and our friends Gennie and Stephanie indulge their passion for dance by attending dance workshops and entering dance contests.

When you have invested more time or money than you like to admit, or if a hobby no longer arouses your passion, put it aside or, better yet, give your supplies to someone else who remains passionate about it. And don’t feel guilty about changing hobbies (even if it’s more frequently than other people change their wardrobes). Hobbies are hobbies, after all, not spouses. In this spirit (or with this rationalization), Susan often treats herself to a new hobby during our exceedingly long winters, knowing that the bad weather will serve as a great excuse to stay indoors and lose herself in her hobby. One year it was making miniature furniture; another year it was sorting the family photos. Still another cold winter found her (and nearly anyone else who came to visit) painting wooden candlesticks. One winter she focused on mastering the computer game FreeCell. Each of these pursuits allowed Susan to feel relaxed, happy and most of all, wonderfully alive and creative.

Balance and mindfulness are essential. So while we urge you to acquire passionate pursuits and harmless diversions, be aware of when a hobby becomes destructive, as when you find yourself gambling away your savings or stealing so much time from your family that you risk losing them. In addition, while many people turn their hobbies into successful, enjoyable businesses so think twice before you succumb to the temptation. The pressure of needing to make a profit, or working under stress to complete too many projects, can cause you to lose the passion you had when your business was merely a hobby.

One last piece of advice: “Work to live; don’t live to work.” Even if you hate your job, or especially if you do, get in the habit of loving the rest of your life – by acquiring a passionate pursuit – and then gifting yourself permission and time to indulge in it.

Excerpt from Susan and Larry Terkel’s book Small Change

“To create means to bring into existence…creativity is, in essence, an internal process that is going on within us, all the time.” – Peter Russell

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