The more you struggle, the more you imagine a big change is just around the corner.

We tell ourselves that change is hard, that it only comes from effort and discipline and resolve. We worry and plan and steel ourselves for the long haul.

It’s exhausting, but necessary.

Or is it?

As Chip and Dan Heath say in their book, Switch: How to Change when Change is Hard, you need to deal with three things when you want to make a change: your emotions, your rational decision-making, and the situation you operate in.

Sounds complicated, doesn’t it?

And because it sounds complicated, we often make it complicated. We try to solve the problem by staging a dramatic struggle (and make no mistake, it is largely an act, though an unconscious one).

We announce flashy resolutions, we have long internal arguments about the importance of willpower, then sink into pitiful despair when we fail to make sustained progress.

What if there was a single exercise that could help you make a big change in just a few hours?

Let me introduce you to Steve, who went from flirting with a mid-life crisis to getting those butterfly feelings of excitement in his stomach for the first time in years–all in just one week. And then I’ll introduce you to Jennie, who transformed herself from welfare mom to CEO.

The power of clarity

Steve is a recent enrollee in my No Regrets Career Academy. He just turned 40. Obviously, Steve joined my course because he really wanted to make a change in his career.

But within the first week, he made a major change in a different part of his life, one that he’d been struggling with for over a year.

Steve wanted to get rid of the clutter in his house. He knew he had too much stuff and it was weighing him down: literally and figuratively. But every time he had tried to make progress in the past, he came up with some excuse: either it wasn’t the right time, he was too busy, or he didn’t want to waste the money of a previous purchase by throwing something away.

One of the most undervalued commodities in our society is clarity.

We think we know what we want. We think what’s holding us back is circumstance.

We’re wrong.

In the first week of my course, I lead my clients through an exercise to determine their core values. If you’ve never taken the time to define, in detail, what your values are, it’s easy to think this is a waste of time.

Nearly all of my clients come out of this exercise saying, “Wow, I had no idea! Now I see where I was going wrong.”

Which is great, but that little insight alone won’t change your life.

Steve took things one step further. One of his values that emerged was “simplicity.” And maybe it sounds silly, but at that moment, he realized his clutter wasn’t just an unfinished exercise. He realized he wasn’t living up to his own values.

It was a little like getting slapped in the face with your own hand.

The next day, he vowed to reduce his belongings by 50%. He sent out a note to everyone he knew, offering up a list of items. Anything unclaimed would go to charity or ebay.

And for the first time in years, he felt butterflies of excitement instead of fear. He was doing something that moved him closer to his values, and it was really freaking exciting.

That doesn’t mean there weren’t setbacks. Many people told him he was crazy. They were sure he was closer to a mid-life crisis, not further. Steve started to doubt himself.

And then he got an email from someone who’d taken him up on his offer for a rather unusual item: a clarinet. The recipient had given the clarinet to her granddaughter, a gift that had made a big difference in the child’s interest and desire to pursue music.

And THIS was the key moment. Because not only was Steve living up to his value of simplicity, but he unexpectedly lived up to another value he’d uncovered: enable others to express themselves creatively.

The power of Steve’s story is two-fold:

  1. He had to get clear on his values, on what he really wanted and was willing to commit to
  2. Then he had to act, and act quickly before his doubts took over, in line with those values

There’s a lot of advice out there on action and taking advantage of momentum. I don’t disagree with it, unless you lack clarity. Which, unfortunately, is true for most of us.

Clarity allowed Steve to tap into both his intrinsic and extrinsic motivators, and that was enough to keep him emotionally committed, not just rationally interested, in the effort.

How to lift off

One of the biggest stumbling blocks people tell me about is lack of money. Maybe they’re in debt or maybe they’ve never found a way to sock away some savings, and the lack of a safety net eats at them.

I can almost hear them shrugging their shoulders, saying, “I made some bad decisions. What can I do about it now? I’m trapped.”

They haven’t met Jennie Hernandez Hanks.

I interview a lot of career changers, and Jennie was telling me about how hard her life was after her divorce. She had no savings, no degree, no house, no job, and 7 kids. Her Mexican mother advised her to start cleaning houses.  Someone of her background, her mother said, wasn’t suitable for much else.

Her problem seemed insurmountable.

But armed with a clear vision of the life she wanted for her children and the dedication to keep taking small steps, she got a business degree and eventually became the CEO of a Native American tribe. She was responsible for managing hundreds of millions of dollars. At the same time, she used her business principles inside the home, helping her kids go from D’s and F’s to college graduates (one recently graduated from Princeton).

I told her it reminded me of the unbelievable stories of a parents lifting a car off of a trapped infant underneath. She told me, “Anyone can tap into that kind of strength. They just have to have a good enough reason to lift car.”

In other words, if you can’t see your dream trapped under the obstacle, you’ll never lift it off. It will seem impossible.

The trick to doing something that seems extraordinary is clarity. You have to see what you want and what’s really standing in the way.

Which, as Steve might say, sounds a lot like simplicity.

So go ahead: change your life. Change the world. Or change the way you think about your problems.

Either way, change doesn’t have to be as hard as we make it.