Have you ever looked at your life and realized that it’s basically nothing like you hoped it would be? That you were some combination of overweight, out of shape, in a dead-end job, and in relationships that left a lot to be desired?

Have you ever gotten fed up with this (probably around your birthday or the beginning of January) and decided that it isn’t OK – that you’re going to become a brand-new person? That you’ll start eating healthy, going to the gym regularly, working on that business idea, and writing that novel?

If you answered yes to those questions, I probably don’t even need to ask the next one: Did it work?

When you try to make a huge set of changes all at once, you’re working against your mind on a very basic level.

The vast majority of what you do is controlled by parts of your mind that you’re not even aware of. This includes not only involuntary actions like your heartbeat, digestion, and breathing, but also habits like what you do after you wake up, how you respond to your environment, and what meanings you attach to what happens.

Habits can be annoying because we tend to notice the ones that lead to results we don’t want. But habits are absolutely required to be a functional human being in our complicated world.

We only have a limited capacity to analyze situations and make decisions based on a consideration of all relevant factors. Different authors use different terms for this same idea: “willpower”, “decision fatigue”, “adaptation energy”, “ego depletion”, etc.

Regardless of the terminology, the fundamental truth is the same: trying to change a habit is a significant drain on your mental resources, and trying to change a bunch of habits at once is a surefire way to run yourself out of fuel and end up stalled on the side of life’s highway.

But you can change a habit.

And once you’ve made that change, and it’s no longer draining your mental resources, you can change another habit.

And if you choose the right habits, they can combine to produce significant changes in a matter of months, and a complete life transformation in just a few years.

What the right habits look like

The more closely a potential habit change fits the following criteria, the better it is as a candidate for starting (or continuing!) an upward spiral:

MODESTLY outside your current comfort zone. If you keep doing pretty much what you’ve been doing, you’ll keep getting pretty much the results you’ve been getting. But if the change is bigger than your reason for doing it, it won’t stick. It’ll just be too taxing on your mental resources, and you simply won’t be able to continue when things get tough.

Provides quick feedback. Relying on willpower long-term is doomed to failure, but there’s no way around using willpower in the short-term to get started. Your initial desire for change will only take you so far – the challenge is making your willpower last (just) long enough to get a new habit firmly established. Seeing a quick improvement is the best way I’ve found to replenish your motivational stores during this critical in-between time.

Strengthens your mind/body system. If your new habit builds your physical or mental muscles, it’ll make all of your future habit changes easier. This will enable you to make bigger or more-frequent changes in the future, and is a big part of the magic of the upward spiral.

Makes you feel good about yourself. A great habit change shows all of your parts that you’re someone who takes care of yourself and treats yourself well. As your parts get used to this, you start to experience an identity shift. It starts to become obvious to your parts (and therefore to “you”) that you are someone who’s fundamentally good and therefore worthy of good things. You don’t start taking action because you’ve magically developed high self-esteem – you build your self-esteem by regularly taking action.

Examples of great starter habits

Meditation. This is where my upward spiral started. The health benefits are many, and there are enough different styles of meditation and meditation systems out there to provide a good fit for just about anybody.

Exercise. The key point here is to start gently, and work your way up slowly. I repeatedly made the mistake of doing way too much at first. When I did, I felt miserable after every session, and wondered why anyone would ever, ever exercise. When I finally started gently and increased the time and intensity gradually, I found myself feeling pretty good, which made the habit much, much easier to stick with.

Eating right. Find ways to get more whole plants into your diet. This isn’t just about the long-term effects on your health. You may be surprised how quickly you start feeling better when you start treating yourself well with food – I know I was.

Where to find the time

Firstly, if something is important to you, you’ll find the time somewhere. If you can find time for, say, Facebook and Netflix, but not to build the life of your dreams, then the parts that define you have made it very clear what their (and therefore your) priorities are. Getting together with them and deciding what you really want out of life would be a great first step.

Secondly, when you start slowly and build up gradually, your unconscious parts will automatically find ways of making things work out. You can carve out the time to do five jumping jacks, floss around one tooth, or meditate for sixty seconds. Then, once you’re doing that, it’s not generally much of a problem to increase the duration slightly. You can get a long way a little bit at a time.

Also, many of these habits don’t take nearly as much time as you’re probably thinking. Can’t find the time to exercise? Try interval training. You can get a great full-body, strength-and-cardio workout in less than 20 minutes with little or no equipment.

Some may even save you time. Want to eat right? Try pre-washed salad blends, steam-in-bag frozen veggies, canned beans, nuts, and some fresh fruit that’s ready to eat after a quick wash. I can make a full, healthy meal in less time than it would take me to even get to a fast-food joint.

If you want to transform your life, you can do it. Find a small win and start winning regularly. Build some momentum, keep it going, and you’ll be amazed at the results.