Positive Psychology: Five keys to preparing for change

The key to successfully dealing with change is preparation, explains our positive psychology columnist, Chris Johnstone

If you could tell a friend some positive news about yourself, particularly about a change you have made, what would you most like that to be? Now is a good time to be considering such changes, particularly if you’d like to catch the wave of new beginnings that starts in January each year. As half of all New Year’s resolutions are abandoned within a few weeks, it’s worth thinking about how you can increase your chances of success. The following five tips will help.

1. Find the want behind the should
One of the greatest obstacles to change is ambivalence, where part of us wants something to be different, and another part, on balance, prefers things as they are. So the first task of change is to make a decision. Decision-making isn’t a once-only thing though. You can return to decisions again and again, making them stronger each time by reminding yourself of your reasons. What is it you really want to happen and why? By focusing on the deep desires that call you, you feed your motivation. I think of this as finding the want behind the should.

2. Allow a preparation stage
If you’ve failed in the past, it is easy to lose confidence. Yet people who succeed in making changes have often tried many times before. If you can’t yet see a way forward, then rather than giving up, give yourself a preparation stage to cultivate the skills, strengths and allies that might help you make progress. Like an athlete in training, you can improve your performance by identifying where you’ve gone wrong in the past, improving your technique and finding out about new approaches. In sports psychology, for example, athletes commonly use techniques like ‘mental rehearsal’, where they picture themselves performing well in their chosen field.

3. Use imaginary hindsight
When you’re wondering how to do something, rather than asking “how can I do this?” imagine that you’ve already succeeded. Picture yourself there, and then ask yourself how you did it. Telling yourself the story of how you succeeded is a great way of opening up a sense of possibility. Research also shows that people using this ‘imaginary hindsight’ technique tend to map out more detailed pathways through obstacles. Approaching a problem knowing it has already been solved puts you in a different mindset, as your creativity is stimulated in the search for how it was done.

4. Keep on keeping on
There’s a saying that courage doesn’t always roar – sometimes it is the quiet voice at the end of the day that says, “I’ll try again tomorrow.” Significant changes are often hard-won, with reversals and failures along the way. By seeing change as a journey, with bumpy patches as part of the terrain, it becomes easier to be compassionate with ourselves when we’re not doing as well as we’d hoped. We can cultivate the strength of persistence by recommitting to our decision and reminding ourselves why that is important to us. Then identify the next step, and take it, and the next step after that.

5. Celebrate victories, especially tiny ones
If a journey of thousand miles is made of many steps, there’s a long wait for celebration if the only victory counted is reaching the finish line. One of the skills of change-making is to notice and celebrate mini-victories along the way. This helps maintain enthusiasm and prevents us losing heart. So if you were to take a step of positive change today, even if it is just preparing yourself – what might it be? Celebrate when you’ve done that, and then continue the journey.