happy-little-boyWhenever I meet with a new client, I usually hear some version of: how can I make my life better? How can I make real changes that last? How can I be less stressed out? Less lonely? Make more money?

I can’t promise answers to all your desires, but I’d like to use this column to suggest how you can make changes that really last, leaving maladaptive old habits behind. Consider this:

Don’t make take on too many “problems” at once – Instead, pick two or three things you’d like to change about your life and start to work on them. Don’t pick more than three! It’s too hard to sustain and a sure set-up for failure.

Make changes slowly – don’t scare or defeat yourself. One of the worst things you can do is to try to change things quickly. Real change is hard; by it’s very nature, it can’t come overnight. Gradual change is sustainable change; extreme personality makeovers come-and-go. Real change lasts.

Find some quiet inside you – if you have a spiritual practice and meditate, great! Walking meditation is good for those of us who would rather move than sit. If you have a connection with God, prayer can be very centering. Anyone of us can take a few minutes to simply focus on our breathing. I like to repeat words like “calm” or “peace” when I sit or walk, because there are emotions I’d like to experience more of.

Stop looking for your happiness outside yourself – if you are convinced that being a good consumer can make you happy, then you’ll be on a never-ending search for the perfect stuff. This also applies to people, jobs and homes. If you think that the perfect partner will make you happy, you’ve obviously never been in a long-term relationship! It brings joy, for sure, but also lots of problems. It’s the same if you expect a new job or home to make you happy. If the same old you is at a new job, how long before your old negative habits kick in? And, while a new home can be great, if the same old you lives there…well, you get my drift. Look for happiness inside yourself and all that external stuff will be nice, but not essential.

Watch what you’re thinking – people say it only matters what you say, but, in my experience, it matters just as much what you think. Your mind and body are inextricably linked: your mind thinks a thought and the cells of your body respond. Your body has an experience and your mind jumps in to make sense of it. Start to notice what you’re thinking. Don’t make this into hard work, let it be a gentle process of “waking up” (some people call this “mindfulness”). Notice when things are going well and ask yourself: “What am I thinking now?” Do the same when things are going badly. If you’re thinking thoughts that only bring more bad stuff (“What a rotten day this is.”) try replacing them with a more neutral thought (“It’s been a rough morning, but the rest of the day could get better.”)

Don’t diet – instead, focus on being kind to your body. Kindness is not starvation. Kindness is not going to a gym and doing things you hate. Kindness is figuring out: what would make my body happy in the long run? Would I really like to eat Cheetos every day for the rest of my life, or would my body be happier with an occasional Cheetos indulgence mixed in with a variety of other foods? (sorry, rhetorical question).

Become your own best cheerleader – we all need someone who encourages us when times are rough. It’s great to have friends who do this for you, but no one knows how to do it as well as you do. And, you can’t always count on other people to do it for you when you need it (like when you wake up – worried about losing your job – at 3AM and can’t get back to sleep).

Give some of these ideas a try and see if the next year is one of real, sustainable change for you.