I walk up to my dryer and begin pulling crisp, warm sheets from the machine into my bag, aware as I do so a man is hovering at the side of the shop watching—no, scowling. “These have all been done for at least 30 minutes,” he says, gesturing to the wall of dryers. “I’ve been waiting here the whole time for someone to come and get their washing.”
Trying to adopt a firm-but-not-defensive tone, I tell him I know my dryer only finished a few minutes ago because I set a timer. But inside, I’m on red alert. I’m already thinking I’ll probably let him use my machine when I’m done, even though I have another load of damp washing waiting to go in. And I do because I’d rather inconvenience myself than deal with the awkwardness and discomfort of him standing there, radiating annoyance in my direction while I transfer my clothes.
Five minutes after he leaves, I’m still standing in the laundrette, wondering what to do with my damp washing and feeling frustrated with myself for not responding like a mature adult who has as much right to use a dryer as everyone else.
Behind my frustration is the knowledge this is by no means the first time this kind of situation has happened. I have a history of panicking if I sense someone is annoyed with me and, although it’s getting better (sharing stuff on the internet is good exposure therapy), there was obviously a way left to go. After the incident with the dryer, I realised that although I knew the lesson on an intellectual level–somebody else’s negative feelings are not an emergency!–I wasn’t yet putting it into practice and living it.
Whenever a reader like yourself joins the Becoming Who You Are Library, I ask them what their main challenge is right now. This is something I hear often in response: “I know what I should be doing, but I’m just not doing it.”
I hear you: learning the lesson is one thing, putting it into practice is quite another. I know first-hand how easy it is to read personal growth books, watch videos, go to talks, seminars, etc. It’s quite another to put the lessons I learn through these opportunities into practice and actually live them.
Here are a few things I’ve found helpful with my own lessons so far:
1. Start with one thing and see it through
I am unashamedly obsessed with self-improvement, which can be fun, exciting, and filled with possibility, but can also leave me feeling like I want to change all the things right now.
Taking on too much change at once is overwhelming, disheartening, and one of the most common self-sabotaging ways to ensure you change nothing at all.
I find changes in my life are most successful and sticky when I make them one at a time, when I choose one thing, commit my full attention and focus to it, and see it through before moving on to something else.
2. Start small and make it easy
When I’m coaching writers, I suggest starting with writing for two minutes a day and building up from there. Two minutes isn’t much, but the duration isn’t the point—it’s the consistency. The more someone can get used to sitting down and writing on a regular basis, the easier it will be to continue that habit, however long they end up writing for each session.
The same applies to any new habit or behaviour you want to adopt. Starting small and focusing on easy wins creates a snowball effect, giving you a greater sense of momentum and, with that, deeper confidence in your ability to see the change through.
3. Expect it to be doable, but not easy.
A few years ago, during a birth preparation class, the facilitator shared the advice: “Hope for the best, plan for the worst.” This was great advice, not only for the birth process but also for life in general.
If we approach putting a personal growth lesson into practice thinking “Urgh, this is going to be so hard!” then we’re setting ourselves up to struggle. Likewise, if we go in thinking “This is going to piece of cake…” then the first challenge we encounter is likely to catch us off-guard and leave us doubting our ability to see this thing through.
There’s a sweet spot in the middle that looks something like: “This is doable. I don’t expect it to be easy, but I know I can make it happen.” Here, we’re expecting the challenges, we’re prepared for them, but we also have confidence in our ability to face any obstacles head on and make the changes we want to make.
4. Make time to review what you’ve learned
If you’re learning a language, part of the learning process involves reviewing new grammar and vocabulary in order to commit it to long-term memory. The same practice applies to your personal growth too.
I find it helpful to make notes on books I read, ideas I hear in podcasts and interviews, and anything I come across in daily life that resonates with me. Then, I review these ideas and lessons on a regular basis. The more I can do this, the more likely I am to internalise them. While I still only focus on actioning one lesson at a time, the review process helps me keep other lessons at the forefront of my mind and makes me more likely to remember them in relevant situations.
Most personal growth lessons are abstract. Part of the challenge of putting these lessons into practice involves bridging the gap between the abstract lesson or principle and what it looks like in practice, especially what it looks like to you, personally, in your daily life.
For example, let’s say you’re reading something about boundaries and you see the following words: “Boundaries are a gate, not a wall. They keep the bad out and let the good in.” These sentences hit home and you re-read them, thinking “That makes so much sense! I’ve never thought of it like that before.”
So what do you do next? The first step is to ask: why does this resonate? What in my life does this make me think of, and what does it inspire me to do differently? Once you’ve identified that, I find it helpful to take a specific situation and rewrite it, imagining how I would have felt, thought, and behaved if I were living the lesson. This retrospective re-writing helps me practice the lesson in private, with the aim of eventually moving these changes into real time.
You are an amazing, complex, deep, and mysterious human being. And, like any amazing, complex, deep and mysterious subject, learning about yourself will take time. The bigger the lesson, the longer it will take. And that’s OK.
The good news, in the words of Pema Chodron, is that “Nothing goes away until it teaches us what we need to know.”
Be kind, be patient, and embrace wherever you are right now. The joy is in the journey.