How Tiny Steps Can Lead to a Big Change
Can you remember a time you felt inspired to make a change in your life, to dump a bad habit or start a better one? What happened? Were you able to take action and accomplish that change, or did you hit a roadblock?
Here's what often happens to me: I read a book or an article, watch a documentary, hear about or talk to someone who is changing their life, and I feel that surge of excitement. I think, "Maybe I can do that too. I want to make that change." I'm motivated to go for it.
And then... pfffft.
- I decide I need to do more research.
- I get distracted by email or Pinterest.
- I fix a snack.
- I run a bunch of errands.
- I'm tired.
- I watch "just a couple" of episodes of my favorite TV show.
- I have to make dinner.
- Or worse, my inner critic jumps in and says, "You'll never change; don't bother."
Don't we all experience this? We may love an idea, but actually making a change is hard. It's easier to do what we've always done, even when we sense there's something better.
Sometimes, because we've failed before, or because we think we're too busy, too old, too broke, too tired, or too something to change, we allow the roadblock to kill our motivation.
Other times we go ahead and jump in with both feet – I call this the "whole new me" approach. We make a gigantic vow. Our motivation lasts for maybe two days, and then we decide it's too hard. We mess up, or lose interest, or simply forget. We label ourselves ("I'm too _______") and stay stuck in our rut.
You know what? We aren't too anything. We're just scared. We fear disappointment. We fear failure. We fear what others may think. But saying "I'm too _______" is easier than facing those fears.
Big change comes from hundreds of tiny steps.
My dad used to say that if something could be done in one minute or less (hang up your coat, turn off the light, sort through the mail, etc.), then you should stop making excuses and just do it now. That used to annoy me (he said it a lot), but now I see the wisdom in his statement.
Maybe you want to become debt free, lose 80 pounds, write a book, quit watching TV, sell your house, travel the world, eat more vegetables, home school your kids, give up sugar, dump tobacco, or hike the John Muir Trail. Start making a change the moment you feel inspired. Instead of letting yourself get sidetracked, or attempting to change everything at once, take one tiny step immediately. What can you do in one minute?
4 steps to a new habit
1. Write your goal.
Write it on a dozen Post-Its, and hang them everywhere. Read it back to yourself, and keep reading it every day.
2. Tell a friend or loved one about your goal.
Choose someone you trust, someone who will encourage you, rather than someone who might point out how hard it will be to reach your goal, or who might say, "Why on earth would you want to do that?" Ask that person to check in with you as you progress.
This is just the beginning, not a complete "conquer it" plan. For example, to give up sugar:
- Start by leaving it out of your oatmeal, using cinnamon and a few raisins for sweetening instead. Or simply switch to plain Cheerios, which contain very little sugar.
- After a week or so, start leaving sugar and/or sweetened creamers out of your coffee.
- Next, you might give up your mid-morning sugary snack and have an apple or a cube of cheese or some celery and natural peanut butter (one ingredient: peanuts) instead.
You get the idea.
4. Begin the first tiny habit.
What is a tiny habit? Let's say you want to improve your fitness. Your tiny habit could be that you will jog in place or do jumping jacks for one minute every single day.
I know, one minute sounds ridiculous, doesn't it? It's like choosing to forgo sugar in your coffee while you eat a piece of pie. So what's stopping you from doing it right now? Go ahead, I'll wait.
(Twiddles thumbs. Tries to whistle.)
I'm going to guess that you exercised for more than one minute, which is fantastic. But you didn't have to in order to meet your goal. With such an easy-to-reach goal, you have a better chance of continuing day by day until it's a habit.
Practice your new habit every day, and as it becomes a part of your normal routine, gradually increase the time you devote to it. Before long you'll be exercising for 10 or 15 minutes every day, which will bring a ton of health benefits, from increased cardiovascular endurance and higher metabolic rate, to improved cognitive performance and a more positive outlook on life. All starting from one minute every day.
You can use the same method to eat more fruits and vegetables (add one every day), to keep mail and other paperwork under control (take one minute to recycle/file/respond every day), to declutter (toss or donate one item every day), or to make yourself happier (write down one thing you're grateful for, sit in the sun for one minute, or meditate for one minute every day).
Don't try to be impressive, just be consistent.
Stephen Guise, author of Mini Habits: Smaller Habits, Bigger Results,* calls these changes "too small to fail." When you do a tiny habit every day, you enjoy immediate success, find it easy to exceed your goal, and continuously move forward. You control your behavior by completing a very simple task, and over time this practice creates new, better habits.
* This blog is reader-supported. If you buy through my links, I may earn a small commission.
Is there a change you've been contemplating? A new direction you feel led to take? A daydream you want to turn into reality? Take one silly, tiny step toward that goal right now!
Updated March 2023