How do we stay motivated to change?

I’ve been coaching fulltime for about seven years, but I’ve been fascinated by transformation since I was a kid. In serious moments I’m drawn to great thinkers who encourage personal growth, but change doesn’t have to be profound to grab my attention. As a child I sat in church imagining fashion makeovers for the ladies of the congregation, and today I still enjoy “What Not to Wear” reruns.

Part of the fascination with anybody’s story of transformation is this puzzle: why is the change process so difficult to sustain even when we really really want it? How do some people keep moving despite daunting barriers, while the rest of us lose momentum?

Sure, I’ve read shelves of books, and I’ve been working with clients and colleagues since the ‘70s. But today I had pizza for lunch and then spent the afternoon feeling frustrated with my own tendency to falter on the path toward health and fitness.

I want to do better tomorrow, so once again I sat down to make a list of the basics. Here are some things I understand about managing my own change process:

I need a vision. There is little chance of progress until I have a clear idea of the outcome I want. Some people do well by writing a vision statement describing the future they hope to achieve. Others want something more visual. That could mean a mind map serving as a succinct diagram of the goal state, or a wish board that uses clippings, photos or drawings to portray the stuff of their dreams.

I have to keep track of progress. Once the vision is in place, I’m more likely to move forward if I maintain a log, noting each step. Today, for example, I probably wouldn’t have ordered that pizza if I were keeping a food diary. The log might take the form of daily journal entries, a spreadsheet or software for maintaining specialized food, exercise or other records.

I like rewards. I am a big believer in positive reinforcement, and I try not to neglect the practice when structuring my own change efforts. One of the benefits of keeping a log is that it feels so good to report success, and I don’t hesitate to give myself gold stars. And I can fill more comfortable about bigger expenditures and indulgences if I feel that I have somehow earned them.

The current system: a tabbed notebook. I’ve thought about the options, and considered more rigorous logging systems, but today I decided to stick with the change management approach that often has worked for me. I keep a notebook with multiple sections, each of which represents a sphere of my life. In each section, I list the relevant ways that I would like to grow or change, and I commit to practices specifically aimed at moving me in those directions. When I falter, like today, I note any barriers, and make a new commitment. I don’t berate myself for failures, but I try to capture every achievement, no matter how small. A key, I know, is to visit the notebook regularly, even if I do more reading than writing.

I never tire of working with my clients’ efforts to change, and I would love to hear about yours. What keeps you motivated to keep going, when the path gets tough?

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Bev, a former lawyer and Fortune 500 executive, is an executive and transitions coach, and a leadership consultant with a broad and varied practice.

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2 comments on “How do we stay motivated to change?
  1. Walt Borton says:

    Eat the Elephant one bite at a time. It’s a phrase I use a lot when tackling all kinds of projects, both personal and professional. Of course the phrase has many cousins – “one day at a time” probably being the one with the most resonance.

    The “elephant” phrase is sort of the inverse of your “one grain at sugar.” But the elephant phrase helps conceptualize challenges as manageable despite their size or gravity.

    Also, I like bench-marks or progress points more than I like “goals.” The goal may be to loose 50 lbs, or save $5,000 – but the process is a lot more manageable – in 5 lb or $50 increments, and the inevitable “didn’t make it” is much easier to resolve and reverse when dealing with the increment.

    I was somewhat surprised to see how powerful this approach is recently when working with a retail client who, like many these days, is facing sales down around 10% down from last year. Sensing that the “big” numbers were going to be scary….instead….we clawed through the budget, category by category, line by line, making small cuts we were fairly convinced would not hurt operations, while not reducing staff income or benefits. Sales remain off about 10%…..but expenses are down about 18%….and the net is actually up about 9% for the first 11 months.

  2. Connie says:


    always get great insight when reading your blog. we call your “grain of sugar” “baby steps”. when something is too overwhelming it is always to much to look at it as a whole. to take small step first is one step closer to your goal.

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