This is the time of year when many people plan to make some big changes in their lives (perhaps you’re one of them).
But, as you know – and as you may have experienced in the past – the big changes rarely stick. In fact, sometimes we don’t even start making them.
The question is, why? Because if we understand why, then we can start doing something about it.
The main reason is that big changes require big motivation. and motivation is a fickle friend. There one minute, gone the next.
The antidote to this is to go small. Start with one tiny habit. And you’ll be astonished at the difference it makes.
Motivation is an unreliable partner in behaviour change
Most people believe that motivation is the driving force of behaviour change. If you have a big enough carrot, or a big enough stick, we are told, you can get yourself to do anything.
Unfortunately, this isn’t true.
According to the Fogg Behaviour Model, for any behaviour to occur, three elements must come together at the same time: motivation, ability, and a prompt. So, motivation is necessary. And when motivation is high, you can do difficult things. The problem is, as I’m sure you have experienced, motivation is unpredictable and unreliable. It comes in waves, and it fluctuates wildly.
At the beginning of each year, many people get a spike in motivation to make some big changes (new year’s resolutions). At this point, the big changes seem doable. BJ Fogg calls this a ‘Motivation Wave’. You can ride the wave for a while, but it soon comes crashing down.
Motivation also fluctuates. It fluctuates day to day, hour to hour, and even minute to minute. It’s raining outside, we feel tired, our friend didn’t show up, we lose interest. The thing we really wanted to do (and did) yesterday, or an hour ago, no longer seems so attractive.
The fact is, we have little control over our motivation, so we can’t rely on it to change our behaviour. Instead, we must design around it by starting really small.
The bigger they are, the harder they fall
Imagine you want to have a beautiful tree in your garden. How would you do it?
You wouldn’t buy a fully grown tree and attempt to ram it into the soil. Even if you managed that first step, the tree would be incredibly unstable. A gentle breeze would send it crashing to the ground (perhaps taking your garden shed with it).
No, you would start much smaller. With a sapling or even a seed. A small, flexible sapling (or a tiny, buried seed) would be resilient to even the strongest gale. It would quickly take root and become stable and strong.
Making changes in your life works in the same way. Big changes – like running 5 miles every day – require big motivation. When motivation falls away – as it inevitably does – so do the big changes. They never become consistent. They never become habits.
Starting small is the only way to grow big
In the Tiny Habits method of behaviour change, the first step in forming a new habit is to make it tiny.
Small changes are immune to swings in motivation. Running 5 miles is hard and it takes time. Putting your running shoes on and stepping outside the door is neither. It’s so easy that it requires almost no motivation. It’s so quick it requires very little time. Even on your worst day you can (and most likely will) still do it.
By going tiny you create consistency. The sapling habit is able to take root and become stable and strong.
And what happens when a sapling takes root and becomes stable and strong? It grows. And this is exactly what happens to small habits. They start to grow all by themselves. Putting your running shoes on and standing outside the door soon turns into walking around the block, which soon turns into running around the block.
As you get fitter, running gets easier. So, you are able to do more. And you start to feel successful, so you want to do more. Before long, you have become the person who runs every day. Some days you may run half a mile. Other days five miles. Occasionally even more. But the distance is not the focus. The only thing you have to do is show up. The mileage will take care of itself.
The other thing that established trees do is scatter their seed. Offspring trees start to grow in other parts of the garden and beyond. And it’s the same with habits. They multiply. For example, running every morning gives you the motivation to eat a healthier breakfast, and helps regulate your circadian rhythm which makes you want to go to bed earlier.
One habit can start a chain reaction.
Start the year with one tiny habit…and watch it grow and spread
So, dispense with the typical new year’s resolutions this year. Take your focus away from lofty goals and big changes.
Instead, choose one habit you want to do every day (or multiple times a day) and make it really small. I mean ridiculously tiny. So small, that nothing will blow it over.
Here are some examples:
|Big Habit||Tiny Habit|
|Run five miles||Put running shoes on and open the door|
|Do strength training session||Do two push ups|
|Read one chapter of a book||Open a book|
|Drink 8 glasses of water||Fill a glass with water|
|Do an online yoga class||Set up yoga mat|
|Meditate for 15 minutes||Sit down and open meditation app|
|Tidy the children’s bedroom||Put one thing away in the children’s bedroom|
|Complete to do list||Identify most important task for the day|
Keep it small for a while. Practise. Feel successful. And see what happens.