Years ago, I attended an out-of-state business training and was chosen to be a part of an interactive exercise that the facilitator conducted. The exercise required us to take steps along a tightrope, maintaining balance while also ensuring that our team members before and after us were safe and secure. It was a difficult task. The experience gave me practice firsthand in balancing while simultaneously striving to accomplish a distant goal.
What echoes in my mind from that day is the frustrated colleague directly behind me who barked, “Just take small, manageable steps!”
Making too big of change increases resistance. It's like dragging a boulder uphill. When I was taking giant steps (as I often do) and getting off-balance, I pulled the entire team off-center, too. They had to work harder because we couldn't work together with me off balance.
The advice turned out to be an insightful and valuable lesson for me in my life and work ever since. I still hear his voice remind me 20 years later to slow down and take manageable steps. My passion has always served me well; my oversized steps haven’t always been so friendly. We need vision and big-picture thinking. We benefit greatly if we learn to like and lean into the discomfort of growth, but we also need the practical steps that tie everything together.
When we think of growth or change, we tend to be impatient and try to do too much, too fast, which results in faltering or reverting to our old ways. However, small and consistent shifts in our lifestyle are more natural as well as far more sustainable. Learn how to impact your results dramatically. Relinquish the big, unrealistic leaps that are frequently abandoned after a short time.
Small Micro-Actions Allow Us to Change More Easily
Studies and research have found that if we give ourselves small goals, we are much more likely to be successful and follow-through.
Here's what B.J. Fogg, a Stanford University psychologist and researcher, who has studied behavioral change for over 20 years as to say:
"To create a real lifelong habit, the focus should be on training your brain to succeed at small adjustments, then gaining confidence from that success... To do that, one needs to design behavior changes that are both easy to do and can be seamlessly slipped into your existing routine. Aim for automaticity."
What does he mean by automaticity? An enormous power comes when the brain automates our behavior because it becomes a habit that is much more efficient. Habits only automate when we do something repeatedly. Do an activity inconsistently, and you do not get automation.
When you’re trying on a new habit, commit to begin with small and subtle changes. You’ll find that you won’t get resistance, and doing anything consistently for a few minutes begins to create a habit that can be extended longer. For example, if you have a paper to write, tell yourself you’re only going to write one page daily. Once you begin, you typically get in the flow and write more. Or you want to start to run; don’t start with running two miles. Begin by setting up a stretching routine for a week, then walk a mile for a few days on a treadmill or outside with a friend. Next, run half and walk half of a mile. Not only does this build the muscles gradually without injury, but you’ll enjoy it far more and likely stick with it!
If you’re looking to break a bad habit, manifest a new job, or even lose a little weight to fit into your favorite outfit, why not try a different approach. Implement small actions that turn into mini-habits and hold the power to transform your life! These micro-habits set a strong foundation that positions you so when you do need to stretch or take a leap, you’ve engaged the power of the brain and built a rolling momentum in the right direction.
My Favorite Mini-Habits to Develop Mindfulness
MINI-HABIT #1: Ask leading questions to yourself.
Sometimes the best thing we can do is ask simple questions to lead us closer to more effective actions, thus leading us faster to our goals. Asking questions engage the frontal cortex into more logical thinking and slow the emotions down.
A good question to ask is, “What outcome do I want?” This question may seem simplistic or even unnecessary, but many times we’re focusing on what we don’t like or don’t want rather than an actual desired outcome. Asking a deliberate question galvanizes our mental focus and helps to create more clarity and significant progress. If you can’t answer it, you may not be clear on your goal.
Another great question to ask:
“Are my current thoughts and behaviors leading me closer or farther away from my desired outcome?” Often, we haven’t connected these dots; without alignment of thoughts, emotions, and actions, you’re going to have to work far too hard. For example, you might not realize that negative thinking like, “I’ll never be able to make this happen” is working against achieving a goal. Or we unconsciously eat a cookie instead of an apple for a snack, not realizing that this one small action works against our goals.
Lastly ask, “What is one small action that I can take to lead me closer to my goal?”
For instance, if you drive in traffic every day to work like I do, you can do this process while driving. Or every time your hands grasp the steering wheel, you could say a positive affirmation or set an intention for the day and ask leading questions that match your intention.
Take action, no matter how small. Make this continual movement toward your goals a habit, and you’ll be well on your way of achieving even the most rigorist of accomplishments.
Creating the Habit of Cognitive Priming
MINI-HABIT #2: Cognitive Priming
One of the strategies to prepare your mind and lay the framework for success is through cognitive priming. Wikipedia defines priming as “Priming is a technique whereby exposure to one stimulus influences a response to a subsequent stimulus, without conscious guidance or intention.”
For instance, if you are shown the color green, some believe that your mind will recognize the word “grass” or a picture of a lime quicker and more efficiently.
Why is this important to you? Because you can utilize priming in developing new habits. You can jumpstart the process of change and leap over obstacles by downloading thoughts and imagery that help to assist in the desired action.
Steps to Prime Yourself for Greater Success
Below is a short step-by-step process for you to try:
STEP 1: Write down on a piece of paper one small change you’d like to make in your life.
STEP 2: Next, ask yourself, “How capable do I feel about making this change?” Notice the reactions in your body, your thoughts, and feelings that arise. Write down your first impressions.
STEP 3: Now think of a time when you accomplished a similar goal, no matter how inconsequential it may seem. Perhaps, you received accolades for a particular project you completed or had a great response for a presentation you gave at work. Pick something that is related, even slightly.
STEP 4: Bring the experience to mind vividly, feeling the elevated and accompanying emotions. The more senses you involve in visualization and imagining, the more it is thought to be effective. You can even call to mind what you said to yourself at the time of your success.
STEP 5: Now, think again about the desired change you want to make in your life. How do you feel about your ability to make this change? Write down your first impressions. Most people notice a significant shift in their confidence; perhaps, even excitement or passion.
STEP 6: From this elevated state, write down one action to assist you in achieving your goal.
STEP 7: Act on it! Notice how good it feels no matter how small the action—you’re a little closer, and there’s pleasure in acting on your own behalf toward something important to you.
Appreciate and revel in your successes. Enjoy them fully. Feel the joy of completion and being true to your word! This practice is encouraging and moves you closer to your goal.
Healthy Habits Liberate Us and Create Ease
MINI-HABIT #3: Focus on your progress, not your slip-ups!
Whenever you set your sight on a new goal or commitment, an essential mini-habit to practice is looking for the positive progress toward your goal. What we tend to do instead is focus on the ways we’re not making progress.
Train your mind to focus on the improvements. When changing a habit or working toward a goal, it’s easy to put our attention on the times we blow it or default to our old ways. For example, you exercise every day of the week, but one. Do you congratulate yourself for the consistency, or do you beat yourself up because you slept in on Saturday? You may have worked out hard at the gym for six days in a row, but instead of celebrating your success, you get down on yourself for the one day you neglected exercise. Very discouraging.
Or you’re working to be more frugal and save money as a couple. You’ve saved $100 every week for the past three months plus increased your income. One day you get a little bored, so you shop on Amazon Prime. Do you berate yourself for the mini-spree? Or do you take time to recognize and validate yourself for the significant improvements? Patterns and habits even form in relationships so try the micro-habits there, too!
We can easily berate ourselves whenever we forget our commitment to ourselves or to our partner, even for a day, but this harshness doesn’t encourage us, nor does it assist us in doing better.
Focus on progress. Compassionately accept when you stumble or fail. Don't judge yourself, your spouse, or your children. Criticism only discourages you. You’re much more likely to stay on track and make positive changes if you encourage yourself and others. Make self-compassion and encouragement a habit!
Related reading: 8 Keys for Breaking Bad Habits
Pick one of the above mini-habits that resonates most with you and try it on for size. Remember that whatever you choose, change requires consistency and repetition before becoming a habit. Stay positive. Keep your self-talk encouraging, and you’ll be well on your way to success.