Why Nothing Is Scarier Than Change

This post is inspired by another blog post – by Catherine Caine at Cash and Joy.

In that post, an (imaginary) therapist and client are having a conversation, which goes in part like this:

‘And what’s the worst thing that could happen if you don’t follow that dream?’
‘Nothing.’
‘Which is scarier?’
‘The nothing.’

And I looked at that, and thought, “There’s a mission for me. Help people to see that the nothing is scarier than following your dream.”

Change is simple, but it isn’t easy

The thing about personal development and personal change is that it’s simple. There are really no magic bullets. There are a few tips and tricks, some things that make it easier, definitely, but the basic idea is simple: Pay attention to the right stuff, take consistent action, and you can achieve pretty much anything.

The other thing about personal change, though, is that it’s hard. To borrow an image from Jim Butcher (one of my favourite authors), it’s like lifting an engine block out of a car. It’s not complicated, but it’s hard. It takes a lot of energy, and you have to know what you’re doing and pay attention.

And what you’ll find about things that take effort and application is that most people just won’t stick with them. There are a lot of fun and shiny and distracting things around, more than ever these days. (Though there never seems to have been a shortage.) We can get a short-term reward so easily, why put in the extra effort to get a long-term one?

Well, there are only two reasons to change, after all. One is that the reward of doing so is greater than the reward of not doing so. And the other is that the cost of staying the same – the “nothing” – is greater than the cost of changing. That if you stay where you are, you’ll be unhappy and bored and not respect yourself.

How to build commitment

Over at PsyBlog, Jeremy Dean wrote a good piece recently on How to Commit to a Goal. Apparently if you first fantasize about a future you want, then reflect on the negatives of your current situation, and consciously contrast the fantasy with the reality, you’re more likely to make plans and more likely to care about achieving the goal than if you just do one or the other (or do them in the opposite order). Not only that, but you’re more likely to take action, work harder, and perform better.

You need both the pull and the push. The pull of the fantasy future, but also the push of the unpleasant present, the nothing that is happening and will continue to happen unless you change. One or the other isn’t enough for more than moderate motivation.

One more thing, though – you have to believe you can achieve the goal, or you won’t commit to it.

The Scary Nothing Technique

Whenever I see a piece of research like this, I want to turn it into a practical technique. (Think of me as the personal development equivalent of an engineer.)

So here it is: The Scary Nothing Goal Motivation Technique.

  1. Find the general zone of your goal. What floats your boat? What do you geek out about? What gets you all passionate and present when you talk about it? If you’re not waving your arms and monopolising the conversation, it may not be your thing yet – try again.
  2. Find something you could conceivably do in that zone. It needs to be something well beyond where you are now, but not so high-flown and amazing that you secretly believe it’s impossible for you. (High-flown and amazing will come in due time. You’re not close enough to see it yet, though.)
  3. Close your eyes and imagine as vividly as possible, with all five senses, doing that conceivable thing. Run a little movie in your head about it. Make it as real as you can. Have fun with it!
  4. Now pull back and look at the gaps, the horrible gaps, the terrible missing pieces that are currently being nothing where that dream of yours belongs in your life. Drama it up. Go wild on the nothing.
  5. Consciously set the fantasy future and the nothing present side by side and compare them. Weigh them up in your two hands. Experience the dissonance.
  6. Stand up and go and do one thing that starts you towards your goal and expresses your commitment. Book a class, buy supplies, put a stake in the ground. Set your face firmly towards it.
  7. Repeat until goal is reached. Then set a new goal.

Nothing is scarier than change. Run, do not walk, away from the nothing.

Mike Reeves-McMillan writes the blog Living Skillfully: Change Your Life. He’s currently running a series on How Not to Change Your Life, about all the things that stop us from being glorious.