Why Small Changes Create Big Success

I was finishing my workout when my trainer asked me how much I was running lately. For a split second I contemplated lying, but then sheepishly admitted…running has fallen off my radar…I keep meaning to, but I’ve got a million reasons that get in the way. I’ve known Cody long enough to know that he does not care about my excuses. Think ex-marine, and you’ll get the idea. He looked at me and said here’s your goal: Twenty minutes twice a week. Ten minutes out and ten minutes back.  Done.

When he said that, a light bulb went off. Right! Of course I know this. This is what I tell my clients regularly. If you want to make a change, it has to be: Small, Specific and Manageable.Take New Year’s Resolutions for example. January 1, we all resolve to be better versions of our selves.  We will join (or start going to ) a gym! We will become healthier! Take care of our selves! Eat more vegetables! Do more in each day! And get more sleep! Right? Right? Then why do our best intentions fail so often? What makes change so hard to implement? Basically, because we have to learn how to be successful at making change.

If you set a lofty goal like: I’m going to get healthier. It’s too big. It’s too vague. What does healthier even mean in this context? How do you do that? Maybe you start by giving a go at changing one behavior one day and then try another the next. Perhaps by the fifth day you forget which action you were supposed to do that day and when you slip up, you are critical of yourself and simply scrap the whole plan or think: I’ll start again tomorrow.

This pattern can impact any project such as finding a job, or writing a paper. If you think I’ll spend my whole day working on my project and then you don’t, you feel like you’ve failed. Often the natural response is I’ll do twice as much tomorrow. But tomorrow comes and twice as long feels more overwhelming…and then after three days of that you just want to give up. Instead, if you are looking for a new job, to write your dissertation, build a home yoga or meditation practice, or even to eat healthier, it’s all the same idea. Set goals that are Small, Specific and Manageable.

When I’m talking to clients I suggest: try to do one task for ten minutes each day. You can always find ten minutes right?  (If you answered no, then start with 5 minutes). Once you’ve done that you can go on to whatever other stuff is calling to you. Maybe you’ll just do the 5 minutes, maybe you’ll do some more. Either way, you’ve done something towards your goal, which makes you feel good about yourself and here’s the catch, more likely to succeed the next day.

Another example: Instead of I’m going to work out more, try I’m going to go to the gym twice a week for 20 minutes. Then once that feels like it’s a comfortable routine you can think about upping it. Again, keep the increments small…and by small I mean smaller than whatever it was that you thought to do. If you want to incorporate a home yoga or meditation practice, give yourself the goal of doing 1 sun salutation a day for a week or sitting meditation for 3 minutes a day. Or if your goal is to eat more healthfully add a specific goal rather than denying yourself.  I’m going to sit for five breaths before I start eating. OR I’m going to add one new vegetable this week. OR I’m going to put my fork down between bites. 

We are all constantly evaluating what we do and how we measured up. We are conditioned to think that bigger is better, but every journey starts with one step. When it comes to accomplishing goals, small steps have powerful long term impact. The trick is, set yourself up for success so that you continue on that road. If you have a success, no matter how small, you are more likely to continue on that path.