I saw a quote recently that caught my attention. To paraphrase, it asked: When you are building a house, how many hammers do you need?

Dr. Jeannie Bertoli

Dr. Jeannie Bertoli

This got me thinking about the ways we go about changing and improving our lives. Whether it is our jobs, our relationships or our inner lives, most of us try one technique and then soon enough we seek another and another. We say that the technique doesn’t work, but is that really the problem? How many hammers are required to build the new … house?

What if, instead of focusing on the deficient technique “not working for us,” we looked at how we are approaching life changes? If we want a “new house,” where do we begin? As we begin the new year, a time when many of us contemplate such matters, here are some ideas on creating anew some aspect of your life.

» 1) Know what you want. You can’t get where you are going if you don’t know where you’re headed. Do not take this step lightly. Examine why it is you want what you want. If your goal is to make a specific income or have a spouse, ask yourself why. What are you hoping that new addition will bring you? If that new income brings you financial comfort, what does that mean to you? Keep questioning until you hit the root emotion, for all of our goals are attached to a way we anticipate they will make us feel. Know that it is the feeling you seek and that the goal is just what you have come to believe is a mechanism by which you will achieve that feeling. Knowing your real goal, you may then expand the method by which you get it.

» 2) Realize that most change occurs within us. No matter the change you seek, the change agent is likely to be you. If you want something different in your life, you are unlikely to get it by convincing others of the changes they need to make. Try convincing your employer that the company needs to change its policies, or your spouse that the changes need to occur in them. You quickly learn the futility in that process.

» 3) Change requires a concerted, serious effort — more focus than we usually allow. Anyone who has tried to institute and maintain a weight loss, tried to stave off angry reactions, or quit smoking or alcohol knows this. The fact is that we have entrenched patterns that have been reinforced by internal and external mechanisms, moment upon moment, day upon day, usually for years. Imagine the groove that has been woven. This is why slight shifts in our habits rarely work long-term. The most likely lasting behavior changes are the creation of brand-new ways of being. Instead of trying to eat less of that cake, create a substitute that you can select instead. Instead of walking out when you get angry, institute a no-walking-out policy for yourself and require yourself to sit with your emotions. Change occurs neither quickly nor easily. Accept that.

» 4) The hammer is not the problem. So many of us are quick to blame the method of change rather than ourselves. We then switch methods and realize, after another method, and another, and yet another, that perhaps it’s not the hammer after all. It’s not therapy that doesn’t work, or Match.com, or AA, or Weight Watchers. The thing about the methods is that, with few exceptions, they all work.

» 5) One at a time. I strongly suggest you take one thing and give it your full focus. Change one aspect of yourself, and only yourself. Give it the proper tools and focus to set yourself up for success.

» 6) Self-discipline. Isn’t this the one we all talk about? If I only had enough of this, all else would be fine. But now that you know the forces against change, stop blaming this. Know what is required.

As for me, I am currently focused on increasing gentleness. I want every thought and every expression of thought to be more gentle and full of compassion, toward myself and all life. So, I commit to this and this alone. I will put up reminders in physical form, read materials and watch things that reinforce this part of myself, and practice engaging from that place with all life. May the ants in my bathroom be better for it. May my credit card company and landlord be better for it. May I spread gentleness and compassion increasingly each day. This has not been my nature, but is now my focus.

May you create a plan anew, a plan that is focused on what you truly desire rather than the thing you believe will bring you the feeling you desire. All hammers can work. Surround yourself with what you desire. Encourage it in yourself. Be it, increasingly.

Happy Year Anew!

— Jeannie Bertoli, Ph.D., is a Santa Barbara-based teacher and author who worked as a marriage and family therapist for 11 years in Washington, D.C. She now hosts a call-in radio show online at