Over 500,000 people visited Farnam Street last month to expand their knowledge and improve their thinking. Work smarter, not harder with our free weekly newsletter that's full of time-tested knowledge you can add to your mental toolbox.


Making a Change: One Small Step

“A journey of a thousand miles must begin with the first step.”
— Lao Tzu

***

Change is hard. But what if we could make it a little easier? As Lao Tzu so eloquently puts it, maybe we just need to focus on that first step.

This is the time of year for New Year’s resolutions. It shouldn't surprise you that we tend to be pretty terrible at following through on them.

The average American makes the same resolution ten years in a row without success. Within four months, 25 percent of resolutions are abandoned. And those who succeed in keeping their resolutions usually do so only after five or six annual broken promises.

With a track record like that, it definitely seems like time to look at the problem differently. There is an interesting short book by Robert Maurer called, One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way; in it, he uses his experiences as a clinical psychologist using something called Kaizen to help people make changes in their lives.

Kaizen has two definitions:

  • Using very smalls steps to improve a habit, a process, or product.
  • Using very small moments to inspire new products and inventions.

For this discussion let's focus on using it to help remove roadblocks to the behavior we are seeking, or to add roadblocks to behavior we are trying to discourage. As Maurer puts it, “using small steps to accomplish large goals.”

Thinking About Change

First, let’s take a look at change. Meaningful change is pretty hard. Our lives are homeostatic systems — they want to come back in alignment with what is comfortable.

We also live in a culture that tends to feel that bigger is better. We think that big steps or big dramatic changes will produce big results. And while this may be true a small percentage of the time, or may seem logical, it’s very rare and difficult to implement. Smaller steps are more doable both for our mind and for our body.

Let’s use the example of exercise for health. Many people want to live healthier lives and there is plenty of evidence that movement helps us to achieve those goals. However, we are often pushed to believe that only a certain type or certain level of exercise will get us where we need to be. We decide to make a drastic change to get a drastic outcome.

The issue is it’s very hard to go from no exercise to an hour at the gym everyday. The gym is expensive, you have to fit it into your schedule (travel and time there) and you have to stay motivated to go regularly to get those results you want.

The Kaizen way would be to pick one small step. It should be something relatively easy, something that takes little time and effort. For example, if you drive a car to work, purposely park as far away from the door as possible. If you bus, get off one stop earlier. But, initially, choose only one thing and do that one thing until it becomes habitual. Maurer suggests thirty days.

It almost seems too simple; so simple that you might think that you are effecting little to no change. But these changes are additive. Imagine if every month for a year you added a healthy habit to your life.

Those changes may come about slowly but they can end up being quite dramatic. In combination, they can be exponential. A total change.

The quick extreme change can actually cripple people into inaction. We reason, why bother if I can't succeed 100%?

Too often, you meet with success in the short term, only to find yourself falling back into your old ways when your initial burst of enthusiasm fades away. Radical change is like charging up a steep hill – you may run out of wind before you reach the crest, or the thought of all the work ahead makes you give up no sooner than you’ve begun.

There is an alternative… another path altogether, one that winds so gently up the hill that you hardly notice the climb. It is pleasant to negotiate and soft to tread. And all it requires is that you place one foot in front of the other.

So let’s make our way back to New Year's. These types of resolutions don't work because we command ourselves to implement them in their entirety starting the very next day. It’s almost like setting yourself up for failure on purpose. So, instead of looking at the resolutions the traditional way, let’s look at some of them Kaizen style.

In the book Maurer walks us through some of the common resolutions he’s seen and the small steps that his clients have used with success in the past. Just don't forget that any change requires eating the broccoli.

Small Steps for starting to exercise:

  1. If you can’t bring yourself to get off the couch, purchase a hand grip to squeeze while watching television (or squeeze old tennis balls). This will burn a few calories and get you accustomed to the idea of moving your body again.
  2. When you’re ready to get moving, walk around the block once a day, or take one flight of stairs instead of the elevator.
  3. Pass one additional house per day, or repeat one extra step on the staircase until you find the habit growing solid.
  4. To further increase your appetite for exercise, think about the activity you would most like to engage in – swimming? Skiing? Tennis? Find an attractive picture of that activity and place it on the refrigerator, on top of the television, or in the corner of a mirror.

Small Steps for saving money:

  1. Set yourself the goal of saving just one dollar per day. One way to do this is to modify one daily purchase. Perhaps you can downgrade from a large, relatively expensive latte to a small, plain coffee. Maybe you can read a newspaper for free online instead of buying one at the newsstand. Put each saved dollar away.
  2. Another tactic for saving a dollar a day is to share a daily indulgence with a friend. Buy one large coffee and pour it into two smaller mugs. Buy one newspaper and swap sections.
  3. If you save one dollar each day, at the end of the year you’ll have $365. Start a list of things you’d like to do with that extra money and add one idea each day. You’ll learn to think about far-off, more sizeable financial goals rather than immediate cheaper pleasures.

Small Steps for asking for a raise:

  1. Start a list of reasons you deserve more money for your work. Every day, add one item to the list.
  2. Spend one minute a day practicing your request to your boss out loud.
  3. Increase this time until you feel ready to make your request in person.
  4. Before you actually ask for the raise, imagine that the boss responds poorly – but that you walk out the door feeling successful anyway, feeling proud of our effort. (This step – really a form of mind sculpture – helps you manage any lingering fears.)

Small Steps for using time more productively:

  1. Make a list of activities that take up your time but are not useful or stimulating to you. Watching television, browsing through stores, and reading things you don’t find pleasant or productive are frequent sources of poorly used time.
  2. Make a list of activities you would like to try that you feel would be more productive than your current ones. Each day, add one item to the list.
  3. Once you have identified more-productive activities that you’d like to try, go ahead and give them a whirl – but in a very limited, nonthreatening manner. If you want to keep a journal, do so – but promise yourself to write just three sentences per day. If you'd like to take a yoga class, you might begin by just sitting in the studio’s lobby and watching students pass in and out. Soon, you will find yourself participating more fully in your activity. And you’ll hardly notice that you’re spending less time in front of the television.
  4. Each day, write down the name of one person who you feel is living a productive life. Then write down one thing that person is doing differently from you.
    (If you want to me more productive might we suggest – Productivity That Gets Results)

You will notice that some of these steps themselves are additive in nature. It’s helpful to look at the behavior you are trying to change and break it out into bite sized pieces. This will serve two purposes: it will give you more insight into the behavior itself; and it will break out the problem into sensible small steps for you to tackle.

One Small Step Can Change Your Life is a small book filled with big ideas. Much has been written about Kaizen and how it has revolutionized business practices, but it’s also interesting to look at this idea from a more personal perspective.

But first, let’s take just one small step. Good luck with your New Year's resolutions.