The Case for Creeping Changes

I was on the phone. It was a winter afternoon, already too dark too early, with wind whistling at the sliding glass doors and the heater refusing to warm the corners of my apartment. I was standing in the kitchen in pyjamas, leaning against the counter as I relayed my latest fuck-ups and annoyances to a friend. Somehow I’d spent the morning reading and dicking around online and drinking coffee in bed, dirty laundry shoved off to the side. The laundry wasn’t just on the bed, either. It had spread like a parasitic growth, creeping across the floor and onto the dining room chair, taking over the bathroom rug. Dishes were stacked up. I needed a shower.

It was one of those days. “It’s okay,” the voice on the line said. “We all have those days.”

I’d been having quite a few of those days, though. I felt like one of those birds that took over the news after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. I wanted so badly to peel away from myself, to leave that messy human behind and start afresh, clean slate, motivated, ready.

But I was on the phone. I was complaining, because momentarily, complaining can feel like relief, a shunting-off of blame, a precursor to change. “Something’s got to give,” I said. Doctors wouldn’t pass me on to a thyroid specialist. I was disenchanted with my patchwork career and struggling to find anything else. Sending out pitches and applications with no reply felt like watching hard work swirl endlessly down the kitchen drain. Why keep feeding it? Life was staticky — not good, not bad, just constant, boring. I hadn’t worked out in ages, and my relationship with vegetables wasn’t doing so hot either.

“I need a new job and a change in scenery and some interesting hobbies or something,” I said. “I just keep doing the same things, I’m putting effort in, and it’s just. Not. Working.”

As I heard myself complain that day, though, it was like the words left my mouth and came to settle on the mugs and sweaters scattered around the apartment. They fell like fine dust onto my non-pantsed legs and my sneakers sitting in the same corner they’d been discarded in a month ago. I’d let my wasted efforts, swirling down the drain, drag the rest of my life with them, acting like the uncontrollable was to blame for all of the things neglected within my sphere of control. If it’s not all in perfect order, then it’ll all be chaos.

I sighed. “Let me call you back,” I said. I made a checklist.

When you are yelling into the void, so to speak, it can be easy to let everything else slip. And once those things start to slide — because you’ve been pushing too hard in other areas, because you got sick, because winter has a numbing effect on your brain — it’s so hard to start again. You feed yourself a lie: if you get the big things in place, the little things will follow, right? Because you’re waiting on that plot twist to come along and change your life for you? All of your good friends will tell you that things fall into place.

But there is no magic event — no job, no move, no new year — that is going to transform you singlehandedly into the person you want to be. Yes, a sudden, upwards change in fortune might motivate you to get on the right track, and the sheen of something new might power you for the next week or two. But if you rely on that outside motivation, there will always be a defeated slide back down. If you’re constantly waiting on external forces to change you, you just might be waiting your whole life.

So I cleaned the apartment. I pushed myself through 20 minutes of a horrible run on the treadmill and took the dog on a freezing walk outside. None of those things scored me a new job or fixed my thyroid or made the winter thaw any faster. I hated the cleaning, I hated the run, I hated the cold stabbing at my face. I thought “fuck, fuck, fuck” as I mopped.

And then I felt a small victory burn in my chest at the end of it all.

Making small changes — consistently, even when it’s hard, especially when it’s hard — is a way of telling yourself that you’re worth the effort, that you respect yourself, that you have faith in what you can do. And slowly, slowly, those 20 minutes become an hour become two. Your place remains clean, you wake up early, and motivation and determination become habit.

You’ll slip again, yes, but getting back up gets easier each time. When you start to see those incremental changes, when the struggle becomes habit becomes fun, that growing self-respect begins to spill over into other areas of your life. And soon enough, conquering the hard things becomes so satisfying that you no longer want to keep the things in your life that don’t fit with this new world view, whether people or habits or limits. Like the laundry that crept across the floor a year ago, your new outlook slowly spreads to touch everything else in your life. It becomes a solid base to build on.

So when the gaping rut is staring up at you, stop gazing back at it for a little while. Leave the massive life changes alone for a day. Make your bed. Do your dishes. Go for a run. In the end, those little changes are what lead to the big ones anyway.

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