What Would This Look Like if It Were Easy?
I’ve wanted to write a series on life-changing questions for a few years now. The first question I wrote about, How much is an answer worth to you?, has been a mantra for my wife and me through every major decision we've made in the last few years.
You can find some of the other questions we ask here:
- What do you believe to be true that most people don't?
- What am I willing to struggle for?
- Who do I need to spend more time with?
The question I want to share with you today is one I shamelessly stole from Tim Ferriss. I picked up his book, The 4-Hour Workweek (Buy on Amazon), at a pivotal time in my life. I had just graduated from college with a degree in Classical and Medieval Studies.
Wait…what’s your degree in? I get that a lot.
My degree is interdisciplinary, which means I was able to take the parts I liked best from several degree programs (Religion, History, English) and mold them into a program unique to my goals.
But in all honesty, other than knowing I wanted to write books, I had no idea how to turn my varied knowledge into a marketable career.
Enter Tim’s book.
He gave me my first taste of the possibilities of the internet. He taught me that creating something of real value didn’t need to cost me every waking second of my life. And he introduced me to one of the guiding questions of my life.
The question is: What would this look like if it were easy?
An Overview of Change Theory
To help explain why this question is so powerful, you first must know a little bit about Change Theory and Force Field Analysis.
In the early 20th century, a guy named Kurt Lewin led the way into a new field of research called social psychology (Source). He argued that our lives were not merely a product of internal personalities or past experiences. Rather, there were current, meaningful, social influences dictating not only how we behaved but even who we became.
To help illustrate this principle, he created two tools still used today. The first is a three-stage model (Unfreezing, Movement, Refreezing), which has become known as Lewin's Change Theory (Source). This model explains the process of change: unfreezing your current (undesired) state, moving towards your goal, then refreezing at your (desired) destination.
The components that facilitate those stages and movement are best explained through Lewin's second tool: Force Field Analysis (Source). This change management model helps the user identify what factors are activity supporting change, fighting change, and how to manipulate them in order to shift your equilibrium.
Still with me? I promise it all comes together if you keep reading.
Image Source: ILX Group
Driving Forces – Factors that push a person towards change in some specific life area.
Restraining Forces – Factors that counter driving forces, actively resisting change.
Equilibrium – The state of being where driving and restraining forces equal each other, causing no change to occur.
Most people exist in equilibrium most of the time. They live their lives without significant change from day to day or year to year. Why? Because the factors of each force are in balance. They might be motivated to change something, but the factors fighting against that change are equal in strength.
Identifying these parts also helps explain why some people start new habits every New Years only to abandon them weeks (or even days) into their new routine. Motivation gave them a temporary boost in driving force, but without appropriately identifying the restraining forces and preparing for them, their motivation was destroyed, and the equilibrium kept intact.
Motivation is a fragile driving force. Building systems to support your goals will always be more effective than chasing temporary emotional highs to move you forward.
So how does Tim Ferriss’s question relate to Lewin’s Change Theory?
How to Make Change Easy
If change is a factor of competing forces then, in order to achieve change in any area, you simply need to strengthen driving forces and weaken restraining forces.
Tim's question focuses on the latter.
By asking the question, "what would this look like if it were easy?" you are investigating how to make the restraining forces less powerful. There are two primary ways to accomplish this: reduce and redefine.
The first method is to use the question to identify any ways to reduce the restraining factors keeping you from change.
Let’s say the change you want to make is to start going to the gym 3x a week. The restraining factors, in this case, are the events, demands, and conflicts you’ll encounter during each of those 3 different days you aim to get to the gym.
One solution, then, is to reduce that goal from 3 times to 1 time per week. This simple change increases your chances of success by a significant margin. And anyone making it to the gym 52 times a year is guaranteed to be in better shape than someone who made it 3x a week for one month... half a year ago.
James Clear writes about small habits for precisely this reason. Small changes over a sustained period will always have a more significant impact than big changes that burn out quickly.
Additional ways to reduce restraining factors to make it easy, using the same gym example, include:
- Reducing the time spent at the gym (aim for a 20 minutes workout vs. a 45 minute one)
- Reducing the distance it takes to reach the gym (your favorite gym might be a 20-minute drive away, but is there an acceptable one 2-minutes down the road that will do?)
- Reducing the opportunity for schedule conflicts to arise by going early (5 am) or very late (9 pm) to get your workout in
The second method is to redefine what it is you’re trying to accomplish. Think of this approach as sidestepping the obstacles in your way - rather than trying to brute force your way through them.
If we continue the gym example, a few redefining options come to mind.
If your reason for going to the gym is to improve your health, what other ways can you accomplish that goal without the gym?
- Taking morning walks or jogs in your neighborhood.
- Reevaluating your diet and including healthier choices.
- Take the money you would have spent on a gym membership and hire a health coach to advise you on the specific ways you can get healthier, given your goals and environment.
The method aims at accomplishing the same goal but through a different means. I know I tend to get stuck in a single track when I'm focusing on my goals. By asking, what would this look like if it were easy, you're able to shake off your stuckness and reevaluate all of the options available to you.
Taking a 20-minute walk every morning may seem like "cheating" if your goal is to work out 3x a week. But, working out isn't really your goal. The gym was the only vehicle you thought could get you to a healthier life – which is your actual goal.
When we take time to look at what we want beyond the thing we think we need, that is how possibilities are born. Possibility gives us options. And options give us back the power to make what we want as easy as we need it to be.
You Get to Make the Rules
When I quit my job to become a full-time writer, I thought I had to do it all: run my social media channels, reply to dozens of emails a week, read hundreds of pages a day, and still find time to produce thousands of words a day.
Within 6 months I burnt out, hard. It wasn’t pretty.
It took months of professional counseling, my crazy supportive wife, and a lot of uncomfortable, internal work to pull me out of the hole I had dug myself in. But it worked, and I vowed to make my dream work as easy I needed it to be.
So I deleted the social media channels I found draining. I stopped responding to emails (and even deleted one of my accounts). I reduced my writing and reading goals. I redefined what it meant for me to be a successful author.
I love my work again. I wake up without an alarm clock because I can’t wait to make progress. I feel hope.
This easy question isn't about being lazy or trying to circumvent hard work. It's about safeguarding our physical and mental health so that we can do the work that matters. A burnt-out creator can't make the world better. The hard way is rarely the best way and is never the only way.
Try the question for yourself and see what happens. Change really might be easier than you think.