A Few Degrees Difference

The story of your life is punctuated by big, dramatic changes and transitions. Big changes are hard to miss. As a result, when we want to make change for ourselves, we tend to think the changes have to be dramatic.

Small changes can make big differences. We underestimate the power of small adjustments. Often, you can get where you want to go by adjusting course just a few degrees. This video suggests four principles to keep in mind while making small changes:

  • Aim Lower
  • Some Is A Lot More Than None
  • Find the Balance
  • Practice Stuff

View Video Transcript
A Few Degrees Difference
Steve Bearman
March 21, 2012

The other day as I was pulling out of my garage, I had my car angled slightly wrong and I scraped it against the side of the garage as I was coming out. And it reminded me how much of a difference a few degrees can make. A slightly wrong angle and your aim is off where you're trying to go. If you're driving down the road and you're angled slightly to the right, you'll end up on the sidewalk in no time. And if your destination is over here and your angle is slightly off, the further you go, the further you'll get away from your goal. When we're trying to create change for ourselves in our lives, we tend to expect that changes will be big and dramatic and we appreciate those--we think that’s real change. We don’t tend to appreciate enough, the effect of small adjustments. A small adjustment can have an effect, that over time, is cumulative and makes a real change in our experience. I want to give you a few principles that you can follow to make small changes in your life that, with a few degrees of difference, can get you what you're after. First principle is: Aim lower. Let’s say you feel disempowered, you don’t know how to speak your mind and you want to be able to do things like stand up to your boss and tell your boss how oppressive they're being. But it’s just too much for you to do, and so you just feel like you are constantly failing at it. Well that is too high of a goal to aim for. What you want is to figure out how to aim lower. Maybe what you want to do is start practicing in your life with people who are safe and who you feel more comfortable talking to, how to say when you like something that they do or when you don’t like something that they do. Just practice saying what you like and what you don’t like. It’s a lower goal, and it gets you in the direction you want to go. If you're trying to get up here, you can aim at a steep angle and that might be unachievable. If you aim at a low angle, it will take you longer but you'll get there eventually. Another principle is: Some is a lot more than none. Let’s say you want to get in shape and you want to get disciplined so you think you need to go to the gym for an hour a day every morning. You gotta start waking up at 5:00 and you got to get yourself to the gym before work. Well that’s a goal that you’ll probably never achieve. Maybe you’ll go for a few days and then it will just be too much and you’ll just give up. But what if you just give yourself a really small goal like, do 10 pushups a day. I mean that takes like, a minute or two. And if you haven’t been doing any pushups and you do 10 pushups a day, that’s a lot more than zero pushups a day. Some is a lot more than none. You have to appreciate the value of giving yourself an achievable goal that you can actually accomplish that will start to make a difference. Third principle that you might want to take advantage of is the idea of: Finding the balance. Like, let’s say you think a dramatic change would be, you've got to find a better partner--one who you like better, who appreciates you more. So you get rid of the person you are in relationship with and find somebody else. Well, that might be appropriate but it might be that there are small changes that need to be made in your relationship like, there’s not the right balance between appreciation and criticism, and you have to start appreciating your partner just a little bit more--a little bit here and there can make all the difference and how they feel around you and how they then appreciate you back. Or you can think of it as the ratio has to be right of appreciations to criticisms or of closeness and intimacy to autonomy and separateness. It’s finding the right balance that makes the relationship right, and sometimes a minor adjustment is all it takes for it to feel like, ‘ahh, this is the relationship that I wanted to be in.’ One more principle: Practice stuff. Like, let’s say that you're feeling down. You're depressed and you think you need to just be able to like cheer up and just get over it and have energy and motivation, but you don’t know how to get there. Well, small practices, repeated, matter because you are what you repeat. A great example of this comes from Martin Seligman. He gives this 'Three Blessings' exercise. At the end of every day you think about three good things that happened during the day--they can be really small things and you write them down. What's a good thing that happened and then you write down why that good thing happened. And it turns out when you think about why it happened, it's either because there’s something good about the world or there’s something good about you or something good about somebody else, and you start to see the world differently because you're practicing noticing what's good and what's beautiful and what you’ve accomplished. So, practice stuff because by repeating it, you start to have a different experience. You know, in a way really, this is about taking it easy on ourselves. It’s about being gentle with ourselves because often change can happen in a very organic way if we allow ourselves to make little changes instead of just trying to make big ones. Think about this for yourself right now: What's an area in your life that you would like to change? Something that you would like to have be different? And now think about, what’s the smallest possible adjustment you can think of making that moves you in the right direction? And try that. Just do that. Just do it once. And then maybe just do it a second time and just do it a third time. Just make a little change and see what happens, and if you're a counselor and you're counseling people, the same goes for them. Think about what the smallest change is that will be practicable for them to make--something that they can succeed at and feel good about succeeding at--that moves them in the right direction. And then make sure that you keep checking in about the difference that difference has made, so that you and they can both tell that it really matters that it’s worth continuing to move in that direction. Be gentle with yourself and appreciate the power of a few degrees difference.

About the Author

Steve Bearman, Ph.D., earned his doctorate in Psychology from the University of California, Santa Cruz. He founded Interchange Counseling Institute in 2002 and is the lead teacher of Interchange's San Francisco-based year-long counseling and coaching training. When he's not counseling people, leading workshops, and advocating for social justice, Steve climbs mountains, adventures in the urban wilderness, explores the edges and limits of what's possible, deconstructs everything, and finds new ways to put it all back together.