Understanding the difference between 1st & 2nd order change.
Originally published January 5, 2019 on jamieschmidtlpc.com
With the New Year upon us, many of us find ourselves in a time of self-reflection and intention setting for the upcoming year. While some find it cliché, I love using the New Year as a distinct starting point for a self-improvement project or two –especially since there a several factors that contribute to it being an ideal time for me to regroup and refocus in on some personal goals.
I come from a traditional southern family. Holidays are big events for us that involve lots of family time, heavy meals, and activities out the kazoo for three months on end. By January, I am always completely out of my schedule and yearning for routine, stability (and meals that don’t involve heavy cream)! I’ve enjoyed the time to play, but I am motivated by the idea of a fresh slate for and ready to create the systems that are going to be most helpful to me this year.
As I look at my goals for the upcoming year I like to use this time to reflect and refine. Many of my goals stay the same from year to year – make healthy choices for my body and mind, live a life that is in line with my personal values, continue to develop my business in a way that feels authentic and sustainable for me. It is important to spend time assessing what did and didn’t work in the previous year, so that I can adapt my approach for even more success in the upcoming year. For me this means spending time in my journal logging my “Wins” for the year as well as my “Oops!”
After I’ve got a clear picture of the previous year, I am ready to develop my plan for the upcoming year. When thinking about goals for myself and my clients, I like to borrow Amir Levy’s conceptualization of change used in industrial organizational psychology. When you modify an organization, change can occur in two distinctly different ways – 1st and 2nd order change. I think these concepts also translate to individuals- just think of yourself as your own mini-system.
First order change involves modification to a current system. Making small changes step by step, to create cumulative differences over time. Think switching a soda for a water, or going for a walk on your lunch break instead of FB scrolling. We know that for many things this type of small swap can be a helpful approach to take. For example, dieters who begin by making small changes are much more likely to stay committed and return to their programs after missteps than those who make crash dietary changes across the board.
Much of the mental health model and the process of therapy is linked to 1st order change. Therapists and clients work together to make behavioral / cognitive /emotional changes (while processing for insight) in the goal of seeing life improvements over a period of time. Major growth can be achieved this way; however, it can be slow.
There is also another downfall to this way of adapting. Because we are making small changes to the system at a time, the original foundation is still in place. If we let our guard down, it can be fairly easy to slip back into old patterns and habits we are trying to avoid. Specifically in times of high stress we tend to default to that which we know best (or longest!)
Second order change is more radical – a complete transformation of the system. Like the reality TV show where an expert steps in and helps a business completely restructure over the course of a week. It involves eliminating systems that are ineffective and creating new systems that are specifically tailored to that organization’s needs. It is change that is multidimensional & multicomponent. When fully committed to, 2nd order change can result in a new worldview and experiencing a new state of being.
Many, many people are looking for big changes in their life. They want a life that is different, more fulfilling, and they can be proud of. AND they want to be able to move forward in such a way that there is no possibility of going back. Most even know the steps they would need to take to get to this dream self. But fear holds them back from fully committing and investing in the changes that would make this possible. If this feels like you, I would encourage you to think about the approach you have been taking.
Have you found yourself staring at the same list of goals year after year and not making much progress? Or maybe you start the year of great but always fizzle somewhere in the middle? This could be because your first order approach always leaves you vulnerable to old habits and ways of thinking.
Are you willing to do something more dramatic to get the changes you have always wanted?
We are all capable of radical transformation. Any change we want to make, we can commit to fully and make in a way that it is 2nd order. Due diligence should be spent on research and preparation + finding the right support network to assist in your major transformation. Then it just requires facing fears and trusting that when we make the right decisions for ourselves, the universe will support us and have our backs.
What would that revolutionary change look like for you? Would it be leaving a job you hate? Maybe ending a relationship that you know is unhealthy? Taking a risk you’ve always dreamed of? What would it feel like next New Year, to be a year into building the life of your dreams? Make 2019 the year of no return!!
Love & Light
Jamie Schmidt, LPC
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