Looking at the Little Things

This year has turned out to be a year of tremendous challenge for me. I realized that the career I’d spent my adult life cultivating was not quite as fulfilling as I’d hoped, and at the same time my relationship started buckling under pressures both from within and without.

Change, it seems, was in order.

If you listen to popular wisdom, especially as expressed in movies and TV shows, profound change comes from profound events. The alcoholic hits rock bottom, losing his family, his job, and his dignity before he can start to address his addiction. The surgeon loses a patient on the operating table before she can grapple with her insecurities. The playboy millionaire discovers he has a teenage daughter before he can learn to take responsibility for his life.

And on and on.

The reality, though, is somewhat different. While some people face life-changing events, most of what defines and redefines us as people is not the stuff of big-budget epic movies, but rather the boring, mundane stuff of everyday life. For me, it wasn’t infidelity — mine or hers – or drug abuse or the death of a parent that turned my relationship towards rocky waters, it was… dishes. And it wasn’t a psychotic student dissatisfied with his grade stalking me across the quad or the loss of three years of research data that led me to realize I was spinning my wheels as an academic, it was… grading papers.

I kept forgetting to do the dishes when it was my turn, and I started facing my students’ ungraded essays with dread, procrastinating as long as I could.

Those little things – a household complaint heard in millions of homes around the world, and an educational chore despised in faculty lounges throughout the universe – said a lot more about me, and about the choices I had made and was making in my life, than any sexual fling, drinking binge, or expensive hobby could have.

How can we grab hold of those little things that say so much about who we are – and use them to move us closer to who we want to be? To do so, we first have to identify them, to pick them out of the flow of daily life for closer examination. Then, we have to figure out what they mean, what those actions and practices say about us, and how well they jibe with who we want to be. Finally, we have to commit to a course of action that changes or eliminates behaviors that don’t reflect our better selves, replacing them with more positive ones. In short, we have to go through an ongoing process of:

  1. Discovery,
  2. Analysis, and
  3. Intention.

Discovery

The key to change in your life – and really, the key to satisfaction as well – is self-knowledge. In our go-go-go society, there’s often little time for self-reflection, which can blind us to most of the little things that go into making our big lives. Not to mention that the things that are most a part of us become practically invisible.

Hence, discovery. Whether it’s part of your weekly routine or a nightly ritual, take some time to go over and record the moments that reflect problems you’re dealing with, as well as the moments that are typically “you”. You might start keeping a “discovery journal”, someplace to record the problems that arise over the course of each day – and the little successes, too. Though I’m focusing on change here, it’s never a bad idea to recognize and embrace the positive, too.

While some things will jump out at you, the point of the discovery process isn’t to delve into the deeper meanings of anything, not just yet. Rather the idea is to see patterns emerge. These patterns will be the grist for your analytical mill in the next stage.

Analysis

Once you’ve given yourself a good looking-into, it’s time to figure out what to do about it. I’ve already mentioned patterns – are there mistakes you make over and over? Arguments you get into again and again? Recurring moments when you do that “laying out your excuse in your head even through nobody asked you to explain yourself” thing?

Try to distance yourself from your actions a little. Look at your inventory of “totally you” moments – what do they say about who you are? Imagine someone you dislike doing the same things; what would you think about those behaviors then? Who do your actions suggest that you are?

Now, who do you want to be? What’s meaningful for you, what values do you want to realize in your daily life? In my case, I consider myself a sensitive and committed partner who does his part in the home – and as a gender studies professor, it’s also important to me that I not fall into gender-stereotyped roles. By repeatedly forgetting about the dishes, I was making more work for my partner – and worse, it was work that men typically shun as “women’s work”. More than that, though, I was failing to do my part in the running of our household, which implied that maybe it wasn’t my first priority. Since I wasn’t doing more important stuff instead of the dishes, I had to face a real disjoint between the person I wanted to be and the person I was showing myself to be.

Intention

At this point, it’s time to think about change: what do you intend to do about all this? The trick here is to be positive, not negative. Not only do negative resolutions lack emotional power, the power that keeps us motivated, but they’re really hard to keep a strong hold on. “Not doing” leaves less of a trace, less evidence, than “doing”.

If you really want to put a positive shine on your new commitments, you can phrase them as affirmations. Not just “I will do the dishes every night, even when it’s not my turn, because that’s one way I participate in my family” but something like “I celebrate my responsibilities through which I express my love for my family.” That’s not really my style, so the first version was closer to the commitment I made – and for the next several months, I became a dish-doing machine, and you know what? It wasn’t a chore at all, it was a pleasure, because it was one way I made the lives of the people I care most about run smoothly.

It’s important the you find the motivation and intention within yourself if you’re to make real change that sticks. Doing things because you know others think they’re what you should do, or worse, to “show them”, might get a short-term shift out of you, but over the long term isn’t likely to be very satisfying – or self-sustaining. In the end, you can’t make others the gauge by which you measure yourself.

Personal change is hard, and harder still because there’s so much little stuff going on in our lives that all push and pull us in different directions. Which is precisely why it’s so important to pay attention to the little things, no matter how trivial they might seem – those are the things that throw us for a loop, the things that slip by invisibly until suddenly we find we’re not very happy with our lives. I’ve been at it for months now, and to be honest, the end isn’t in sight ( I am, after all, changing careers as well as trying to patch back together a relationship). But in the end, it’s worth it, because I’ve taken charge of so many parts of my life that I was content, once upon a time, to let slide.

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