Fixing What Isn’t Working FAILS Every Time: Look for the Bright Spots

If every aspect of your life were flowing along beautifully, you’d never change a thing. Why would you? “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is a clichéd quote for good reason.

But, since being a paragon of virtue is a tough gig for us mere mortals to achieve, and since it’s human nature for an introspective woman like you to want to improve, chances are good you’re trying to change something in your life. Chances are even better that you are going about that change all wrong.

STOP Trying to Solve Your Problems

If you are taking a problem-solving approach to personal change, it won’t work. Sorry. It won’t work because figuring out and trying to change what you are doing wrong is equipping yourself with what Jerry Sternin calls TBU (true but useless) information. It’s looking in the rearview mirror. It may lead to feelings of guilt and regret. It will almost certainly result in you feeling too overwhelmed to even attempt a change, or to sustain the change if you do attempt it.

Instead, Look for the Bright Spots

 Change your perspective. Figure out what’s working and do more of it. 

bright spots quote by chip and dan heath on background of bright sun in red sky
I know. That advice sounds like glib pop psychology, but there’s lots of evidence that it works. When applied to groups, the theory is called Positive Deviance. Basically it means that when trying to solve a problem, like malnutrition in rural Vietnam or saving damaged coral reefs, researchers look for the exceptions—the individuals or groups who are having more success than their peers, despite facing the same challenges with the same resources.

When talking about individual change, Solution-Focused Brief Therapy (SFBT) is a useful approach and you don’t necessarily need a therapist in order to experience the benefits. SFBT uses a series of questions to help you find and repeat what Chip and Dan Heath call your bright spots, those moments when you are having success.

A Solution-Focused Question to Help You Find Your Bright Spots

Let’s use a simple example, something that doesn’t require a therapist. Imagine that you stop at your favourite coffee shop every morning before work to buy a $6 specialty coffee. You’d like to take a trip next year and could sure use the $1500+ that your coffee habit is costing you. But it’s not an easy habit to change. You love that coffee!

If you have never been able to avoid the lure of the coffee shop, ask yourself the Miracle Question
Sometime during the night, while I was asleep, my problem was solved. When I wake up, what’s the first small sign that something miraculous has happened?

Maybe you woke up thinking about your colleague who has been begging you to join her at the gym before work. You decide you’re going to meet her this morning, even though it means you won’t have time to get to the coffee shop on the other side of town. You’ve now got a bright spot, a time of success.

Two Solution-Focused Questions to Keep Your Bright Spots Glowing

If you have avoided the lure of the coffee shop even once, ask yourself the Exception Question
What was going on the last time I was able to avoid stopping at the coffee shop?

Maybe you managed to avoid your coffee once last week because you went to the gym, and once because you overslept and didn’t have time to stop. Analyze your successes. If it worked before, it can probably work again.

If you’ve successfully skipped the coffee shop several times but aren’t sure how to keep the trend going, ask yourself the
Future-Focused Question
What will I be doing in the next week that will tell me that I am still making progress?

Maybe you will remind yourself to sleep in a bit later. Or you will make plans to meet your friend at the gym four days next week instead of three.

Notice that none of the questions require you to adopt someone else’s best practices and try to make them fit your life. That almost never works. Instead, you simply look for what’s working in your life and you do more of it.

So what do you think? Will finding and repeating what’s working help with all changes, or does it only work for simple habits? Is there some aspect of your life where you might try this approach? I’d love to know your thoughts and plans in the comments below.

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  1. Karen – I love this blog! You have inspired me to think about where I have been and where I want to go. I read something which someone wrote – “It’s never in your best interests to share lots of time with people who constantly try to discourage you” and I want you to know that everything you have written has encouraged me to rethink who I am, the people in my life who build me up and the people who tear me down. This blog, and your honesty, I believe, will be encouraging to anyone who reads it – including me. Thank you!

    1. Thanks so much for your kind comment, Anna. Life’s way too short to spend time with people who tear us down. I’m glad you feel comfortable being here where we are all about supporting and encouraging each other. Welcome to the site! Karen

  2. What an inspiring message Karen! It’s so important to be able to get out of bed in the morning and see the light of all aspects of life. It’s truly a gloomy world out there if you want it to be. Change can certainly be scary. It’s difficult for all of us I’m sure. I have learnt though, that if you embrace it, usually only good comes from it and the light will shine for you. It’s important to keep this in your mind when you are contemplating change. To answer your question, I believe that looking for bright spots would happen mostly with the smaller simple habits and concerns which in turn can change the larger life situations that may not be working. Sometimes it’s hard to know what the big issues are until you start working on them step by step or mini change by mini change. Sometimes the little changes may change your life path to a direction you never imagined. The hardest part, is having the courage to try.

    1. Welcome to the site, Laura. I’m so glad you’re here. And thank you for your comment. Your positivity shines through in your message, confirming that people can be bright spots too! You offer an interesting perspective and good reminder when you say that big issues can be impacted by looking for and repeating the bright spots in our smaller habits and actions. I have a stone coaster on my desk that has the message ‘step by step’ but I wasn’t making the connection to how that message tied to a series of mini changes until you said it. Great insight, Laura. Thank you.

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