As the New Year approaches, many of us spend time reflecting on the past year’s events and start strategic planning for the year ahead. We make a list of resolutions (often repeated goals from the previous year) and convince ourselves that this year will be different. On January 1 we’re full of excitement and good intentions. We vow to exercise more regularly, eat more healthily, sleep better—the list goes on.
Yet, come February, the thrill and fervour have dwindled. By midyear our resolutions have fallen by the wayside and our lives look exactly as they did at the end of the previous year. And every time we break a resolution it reinforces our fear that we’re powerless—fundamentally unable to make progress or realise our goals.
The problem is that, while we want things to happen fast, change takes time. New habits take a lot of practice before they become routines. In fact, experts agree that it’s rarely a good idea to jump headfirst into any big transition. A better way to make a change successfully is to take baby steps toward your goal.
“Change doesn’t happen until people alter their behaviour, and they don’t alter their behaviour unless they start with the small,” explains Harvard philosophy professor Michael Puett in The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life.
For instance, a physically inactive student who rarely leaves her desk changes her daily routine by taking a walk each morning and notices how this improves her depression. Another person begins to thank people during routine interactions and finds that her relationships improve dramatically by this small courtesy. Or a talented basketball player takes up yoga to improve his game and discovers that it shifts his patterns on the basketball court and in other areas of his life as well.
Similarly, if we want to make changes in specific relationships, it helps to start small. For example, instead of confronting a difficult coworker head-on to resolve issues, just start saying a friendly hello in the morning or offer to get him or her a drink or snack. These small acts of kindness ease tension and build trust so that when you do need to address issues, you’ll be much more likely to experience positive change.
Little efforts like this are important because we can control them. The world is changing constantly. Our best plans are often laid to waste simply because circumstances shift. We get jobs; we lose them. We get sick; we get well. We don’t strictly control these events, but we can influence how we experience them by attending to the details that move us forward.
Sometimes we seek change so desperately that we set huge goals that are difficult to achieve quickly. Then we’re left disappointed when the instant results we dreamed of don’t materialise. But starting with a small goal and growing it into a larger goal can often create a more lasting impact.
Mark Twain offered some sage advice: “The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.”
By making incremental improvements and adjusting to the changes slowly, these new actions become habitual. It’s like muscle memory: the more you repeat the desired behaviours, the more natural they feel. And, more importantly, the easier it will be to handle setbacks because you’ll already have the tools in place to pick yourself right back up from a small detour.
Be honest with yourself and set a goal that resonates within you and seems achievable. For instance, maybe devote the coming year to half of your total weight loss objective. Or in the first three months save up a part of the money you’d like to have saved by the end of the year. Maybe work on having your business plan completed rather than the entire business up and running within a year. Then wake up each day committed to taking an actionable step toward your goals and intentions. It doesn’t matter how small or big the step, just take a step. It’s the series of small steps that creates our big steps. We don’t need to move mountains to change our lives or heal our relationships. We just need to climb them, one step at a time.
There are also a lot of psychological benefits to choosing the slower method. Your mind needs time to adjust to this new regime and even to grieve the loss of your old self. So be gentle with yourself as you shift into a new way of taking care of how you live.
Progress is not always a straight-line trajectory. You will have ups and downs as you make changes. Making small adjustments gives you time to properly see, feel and reflect on the changes—in your energy, your weight and your appearance. And be sure you take the time to celebrate even the smallest victories along the way! When you recognise the benefits of your new habits, it boosts your confidence and your determination to keep going.
The benefit of small steps
Small is easier to start. Trying to make a big change can be overwhelming. But try to find some time during the day to reflect on what you can change.
Small means less resistance. Most of the time when you’re adopting a new habit, you’re also dropping an old one. This is especially true if the change you’re adopting is a big one.
Small builds momentum. The most important part of starting small is the consistency. You’re more likely to notice how good you feel with that small change because you’re not thinking as much about some big thing you’re giving up.
Small becomes big. As you establish your new habit or your new way of thinking, you’ll see it’s much easier to expand on that than it is to start from zero. We have an idea of a better self, an ideal self that’s very different from who we are now.
Change is not a destination. It’s a process that continues forever.—Courtesy of Tiny Buddha
Steps for change
Take it easy. Our brains are hardwired to resist repeating difficult, complex or painful events. Instead, relax a little. Make sure to bring playfulness and fun or, at the very least, ease into each little step you take toward your resolution.
Set yourself up for success. Get rid of oversized, vague ambitions and replace them with specific, manageable actions you’re confident you can achieve.
Know yourself. Many times we wreck our plans to improve by making a change harder than it needs to be. If you honestly note your strengths and weaknesses, you can set goals that are doable. Look for “micro-moments.” Be mindful of tiny ways you can get closer to your goal throughout the day. Even a few seconds can count.
Be consistent. New behaviours take about three weeks to become habits, so be patient. You won’t see big changes right away. Keep a journal of what you achieve each day to stay on track and chart your progress.
Don’t forget to celebrate. We’re quick to criticise ourselves when we fall short of a goal, but a pat on the back for our successes—even small ones—is important to staying motivated. When we’re rewarded (even by ourselves), our unconscious mind drives us to these healthy behaviours again.—Courtesy of WebMD