Last week, we talked about some techniques for meeting your developmental goals. Continuing in the spirit of “New Year, New You”, this week we’re discussing challenges and tips for making lasting internal change.

Benjamin Franklin once wrote, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

If he were alive today, he might add the word “change” to his famous line.  After all, no matter how much we fight or embrace it, change seems to be the one constant we can truly count on—perhaps even beyond death or taxes.

Change is inevitable. We know that. We also know that some changes are easier to accept than others. I’d rather experience the change of receiving a five percent pay increase than the change required by receiving the feedback that I “need to become a better team player…immediately!” But there’s also another factor worth considering when it comes to change – where that drive to make a change comes from.

Some changes are externally driven and therefore “forced” on you, like a pay raise or being told you have to do something differently. These changes are externally motivated, as there is something outside of you that is pushing the behavior change.

Then there’s the change whose motivation comes entirely from within. You, as an individual, decide you want to make a behavior change. The resolutions we make at this time of year tend to be of this type, and they generally require an internal change – it’s all about who you will become. These changes tend to be more difficult, but also longer lasting.

The Challenges of Self-Motivated Internal Change

Self-motivated change might feel harder because it requires decisions that no one else might see or know about. There’s no external factor forcing the change, or holding you accountable to it.

Also, internal change – whether motivated by an external push or your own desire – is more difficult than simply accepting or making a change to your environment: it requires you to really think differently about yourself and the value you bring to others.

How to Set Goals that Require Internal Change

To help these challenges, Kegan and Lahey, in their book Immunity to Change, wrote that internally-oriented goals need to allow for three things:  autonomy, mastery, and purpose.  In other words:

  • We need to be able to choose whether or not to make the change,
  • The change has to matter to us, and
  • It has to serve a larger purpose.

Otherwise, we will not commit to the new behaviors needed to change and accomplish our goals.

Writing out your goals is always a helpful first step to achieving them, but for goals that require an internal change, the typical SMART acronym (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely) might not be a good fit. Consider redefining the acronym so SMART stands for Safe, Modest, Actionable, Research-based, and Test.

Thus, to implement change on the inside, we need to:

  • Feel it is Safe to give it a try and not do anything that puts us at risk or get us fired.
  • Take Modest steps that are small and incremental rather than big and risky—to work our way up rather than take big leaps.
  • Choose something that is Actionable—making the goal something we can really do.
  • Use Research-based data and information to check our thinking and adjust our approach.
  • Test our assumptions on others to gauge their reactions before committing to next steps.


Further, there are two keys for us to think about to be successful with internal change.  The first is to tell others about our plans and to ask them to hold us accountable.  This step adds some outside pressure for us to show up differently and actually encourages us to stick to our plans.  The second is for us to reflect on our efforts for at least 30 to 60 minutes a weeks over several months.  To explain, for us to succeed, we need to be active learners and think about our successes, the things that are still getting in our way, and the next steps we need to make on our journey.

Change within Community

One final thought: Whether being forced on us from the outside or whether initiated by ourselves as we seek to become different people, change can be a grind. Simply acknowledging how hard it is can in small ways take away some of its sting or pain.

And knowing whether the change is external or internally driven can help us become more aware of the support we need or barriers in our path.  However, no matter the change we are facing, talking with a colleague about some practical next steps may be the best move to make.  Oftentimes, just discussing issues and changes with trusted co-workers creates clarity about our desired outcomes, who could help, and what we could do to advance our progress and success.