How to spring load your own improvement efforts

Posted by on Feb 3, 2013

PREVIEW: The FROM-TO format is a framing technique that spring loads your good intentions. It makes your thoughts more tangible and visible. It creates a positive tension between what is and what will be. It heightens importance and urgency. And it paves the way to positive action. You can describe any intended change in the FROM-TO format: establishing new habits, creating new conditions, building new relationships, cultivating a new state of mind, and much more.

IN THIS WORLD of nonstop change, we need to be our own best change agents, improving ourselves all the time. Yet nothing is more difficult than changing our own ways of thinking, doing, and being.

Here’s what often happens: We identify a change we want to bring about in our lives. It’s a self-improvement, all good. We think about it. We keep thinking. We resolve to take action, soon. We think some more. Then a few months fly by and…everything is still the same. Change now seems elusive. We keep thinking about it, but our good intentions are now mixed with frustration.

This is typical, but it’s hardly inevitable. The are four things you can do to stack the change-management odds in your favor:

  • Frame the change in a helpful way
  • Identify actions that are in your sphere of control
  • Clarify your top priorities
  • Take several steps right away to gain early traction

It sounds like a lot of work. In reality, it can be fast and fairly straightforward as long as you follow a process. That’s what the rest of this post is about. It describes a step-by-step approach that will bring structure, clarity, and quick momentum to your personal change efforts.

You can get started right now. Just 15 minutes will get you far enough along that you’ll want to continue when you have more time. From beginning to end, the whole exercise takes two or more hours to do well. You can stretch this over a week or two, as explained below.

When you’re ready:

1. Start with a clean page. You can use a legal pad (good), a word processing document (better), or a spreadsheet (best). With a spreadsheet, you’ll be able to sort what you write more easily. If you opt for paper or a Word document, turn it horizontally so it’s in landscape format. You’ll need the extra left-to-right writing space.

2. Divide your worksheet into three columns. Label each column with a single word: FROM (left column), TO (middle column), and HOW (right column).

3. Come up with one change you want to bring about in your work life or the rest of your life, defining it in terms of transition. What do you want to move FROM, and what do you want to move TO? FROM describes your current situation, and TO describes how you want things to be in the future. Write this down in brief descriptive phrases — one in the FROM column (left) and one in the TO column (middle), next to each other on the same row. (Leave the HOW column empty.)

Here’s what not to do: Don’t spend time searching for the most important change to write in the first row. You’ll prioritize and sort later on. Don’t negate or diminish anything that comes to mind; just write it down. Don’t spend time wordsmithing. Don’t write more than one phrase or sentence for each description. Don’t give up on the process if it’s slow going early on. Unless you’ve done an exercise like this before, you might be working a bit outside of your comfort zone.

You can describe just about any intended change in the FROM-TO format: establishing new habits, creating new conditions, building new relationships, cultivating a new state of mind, and much more. Here are examples:

4. Now go to the next row and write a second FROM-TO. Then go to the third row and repeat. Move at a quick pace, writing down everything that comes to mind, putting each intended change in the FROM-TO format on a separate row. Don’t worry about categorizing things at this point, and avoid the urge to condense. If two entries sound almost identical, keep them both. Volume is a good thing at this point, so just keep going — and don’t be surprised if you end up with 40 or more rows, each containing a separate FROM-TO pair of statements.

5. Set your work aside for several days, then come back to it. Review what you wrote, and if additional FROM-TOs come to mind, add them.

6. It’s time to categorize, condense, and clean everything up. First, sort all of your FROM-TO entries, grouping similar rows and writing a label to describe each category. There’s no right or wrong here, and your categories will vary widely. To cite a few examples: health, work, financial, productivity, state of mind, relationships, family, and many more. Next, within each category, look for any FROM-TOs that are nearly identical. Combine these, rewriting as necessary. Finally, take a look at the finished product and make any fine-tune adjustments to your wording, sorting, and labeling. (You can see why a spreadsheet works better for this than a legal pad or word processing document. A spreadsheet makes it much easier to move whole rows.)

7. It’s time to operationalize, and that leads us to the right-hand column labeled HOW. This is where you explain HOW you’re going to break the inertia and get things moving FROM the current situation TO your intended future state. Go methodically from row to row, starting at the top and working your way to the last entry. For each FROM-TO, write down 1-4 very specific, practical actions that will move you in the “TO” direction. These should be actions that you can take on your own or with other people. Don’t feel obligated to write everything you could possibly do; just write a few early action steps that are well within the doable range. You want some early success, not frustration. Here’s an example:

8. You can’t do everything all at once, so you need to select several actions (in the HOW column) to begin implementing immediately. How do you decide? There might be some actions that need to come first because they set the stage for other things. Other actions might be low-hanging fruit that will bring about an almost instant FROM-TO change. Still other actions might be more in line with your interests, so why not start with those? Or you might want to focus on a single high-priority category, selecting actions from there. Whatever your criteria, pick five or so actions you can take right away. Then turn your attention to figuring out when you’re going to get these things done. (You can even create a fourth column titled WHEN — easy to do if you’re working with a spreadsheet.) Decide which of your selected actions are one-time activities, and estimate the required time for each. Determine whether certain actions need to precede any of the others. Then build all of your five or so high-priority actions into your near-term schedule so that each has a clear start date that can’t be ignored. Once that’s done, it’s up to you to stick with the plan and make it happen. If you need a nudge, ponder Plato’s wisdom: The beginning is the most important part of the work.

9. Use your plan to stay on track and maintain momentum. Review it at the start of every day or whenever you build your schedule. Take stock of your progress, check off actions you’ve completed, select new actions to implement in your next round. When you come up with new action ideas, write them into your plan. And when new FROM-TOs emerge, as they always do over time, add them to your plan along with action steps in the HOW column. This will keep your plan current — and keep you in a positive and proactive mode when it comes to personal change.

You are your own first and foremost leader. Your challenge is to be your own best leader. This process will help in a big way.