Changing habits is like tightrope walking: an exercise in which the balance is always fragile, but it is the small changes that pave the way to truly remarkable results.
Changing behaviour is difficult, which is why setting big goals doesn’t facilitate the change process but rather sabotages it, says Sabina Nawaz, a professional coach who works with leaders of Fortune 500 companies, the annual ranking that takes into account the 500 most valuable companies in the USA.
At the beginning of her workshops—sometimes after assessments have shown that they are in a full-blown crisis trying to manage stress, time, and energy—leaders are asked to identify a small habit they could develop in order to improve their situation. Their responses are predictable. Almost without exception, they propose changes that require a lot of energy, especially because until then they have invested little or nothing in that direction: the sedentary person for whom a few push-ups would be a huge challenge proposes to do at least one hour of exercise a day; the one who can’t stop at a single portion of dessert wants to give up sugar altogether. The problem is that things don’t go that way at all, except maybe for the first few days, when motivation and enthusiasm are at the highest level.
The truth is that big goals are less motivating and more burdensome, and the failure that often occurs when we try to implement drastic changes sends us into a spiral of discouragement, says Nawaz.
Small changes build lasting habits
The key to real change is breaking down the behaviour we want to adopt into tiny, manageable actions, says researcher BJ Fogg.
When we start off steep, trying to change things on a large scale, we don’t get very far—we end up exhausted, more hopeless than before we made any change, says the expert. He insists that we change most easily when we feel good, not when we are under pressure. And small habits have the potential to maintain well-being, given that they don’t drain our energy, don’t demand too much willpower, and don’t crush us with the pressure of the calendar.
We change most easily when we feel good, not when the change takes us completely out of our comfort zone.
The problem with changing behaviour is that motivation and willpower continually fluctuate, Fogg explains. Motivation evaporates under conditions of stress or fatigue and willpower decreases throughout the day, so we need to set lower expectations and small changes to increase the chances of adopting a new habit, says the researcher.
We can start, for example, by flossing a single tooth, doing 5 push-ups a day or running for 20 seconds. The flossing example comes from Fogg’s experience, who could not get himself to floss daily, so, after many failed attempts, he set out to floss a single tooth. Soon enough, he started flossing all his teeth, and the results were noticed and praised by his dentist.
Seems ridiculously simple, right? That’s exactly the point. It’s an indication that we’re on the right track, because the new behaviour requires changes that are too small for us to have any excuse to avoid them, says Nawaz. Small habits require minimal effort, so they can be (and should be) practised daily until they become second nature.
As hard as it is to plan small changes, it is equally difficult to resist the temptation to resize the small habit from the very first days, when the motivation is strong and the excitement pushes us to turn up the volume of change to the maximum. Nawaz’s advice is to limit ourselves to practising the tiny habit for at least two weeks, then increase the difficulty or the number of implementations by 10 per cent.
There is another reason why small habits are implemented successfully. The most common obstacles we struggle with while forming new habits are distance, time, and effort. A study showed that people who live 6 km away from the gym exercise at least 5 times more in a month than those who live 11 km away. Also, practising a tiny habit takes a short enough time that we manage to check it off even on extremely busy days, when we usually eliminate from our list anything that seems non-essential.
Small changes and noticeable results
Feeling overwhelmed by the endless supply of diet books on the market, author BJ Gallagher set out to find out directly from a doctor what type of diet really works, and the answer he received led him to write an article in which he concludes that small habits lead to remarkable results—including when it comes to health.
Cardiologist John Denney assured Gallagher that any type of diet works, if it’s followed conscientiously. The problems arise after the diet ends, with 98 per cent of those who managed to lose weight regaining the lost pounds within two years.
When talking to people who have succeeded in keeping their weight off long-term, Gallagher noted that they were able to reset their eating habits using sometimes small steps, and sometimes creative methods of transitioning from dieting to a new lifestyle. A lawyer told him that he began to replace one unhealthy food with another more harmless one and intrdoced a new change only after the previous habit was already consolidated. When ordering food, a businessman who usually ate out began to ask for a container in which to put half of the portion as soon as he was served the ordered dish. A woman who was training for her first marathon said that she started by walking in the morning to the neighbouring block of flats, and then to the next one.
We are tempted to see dramatic changes as the only springboard to success. Or maybe we’re just seduced by the idea of shortcuts to our desired results, although this way of thinking works against us. When we set big goals and plan actions that involve great effort, we don’t know where to start or we feel unable to do it, so the change is stifled from the get-go, points out nutritionist Ellie Krieger. The successful changes are those that are easy to check off, which give us immediate gratification for this very reason, thus sustaining the motivation to continue, concludes Krieger.
When 1 per cent matters, whether we’re talking about progress or decline
“We all deal with setbacks but in the long run the quality of our lives often depends on the quality of our habits,” says James Clear, author of the bestseller Atomic Habits. His book is a guide for those who want to change their habits effectively and simply, and the method he presents is, according to the author, the only one he knows and has successfully experienced—that of gradual change.
To illustrate how small improvements eventually lead to spectacular results, Clear describes how Dave Brailsford was able to achieve remarkable performances with British Cycling athletes after a century of mediocre results. Brailsford applied the method of improvement by small gains (which he called the aggregation of marginal gains). Basically, the new sports director looked at all the elements involved in the practice of cycling (from redesigning the bikes, making sure the saddle is more ergonomic or the tires more grippy, to changing the cyclists’ equipment or testing the most effective massage gels for muscle recovery). Then, he improved each element by only 1 per cent.
If you increase your performance by just 1 per cent every day for a year, you will be 3.7 times better at the end of the year.
Just five years after Brailsford took over the team in 2008, the British team won 60 per cent of the gold medals at the Beijing Olympics and performances increased over the next decade.
The strategy of improving by 1 per cent leads to imperceptible results in the short term and major results in the long term, writes Clear, who presents readers with a motivating mathematical calculation: if you increase your performance by just 1 per cent every day for a year, you will be 3.7 times better at the end of it. Similarly, a daily deviation of 1 per cent from your goal will ultimately translate into a sharp decline, the author points out, stressing that you should pay more attention to the trajectory you are currently on than the results of the moment.
Factors that facilitate the formation of small habits
Focusing on the system, not the goal, is one of the rules of forming and maintaining good habits that Clear promotes. It is not the goal that leads us to success—it only defines the result we want to reach—but the system; that is, the process followed to achieve the goal. In fact, the goal restricts our happiness (we think we will be happy when we lose 10 kg or achieve certain professional performances), and the truth is that we can be happy during the entire process of change.
Behind every system of action is a system of beliefs, notes Clear. Change occurs on three levels: changing the outcomes, changing the process, and changing our identity, which includes our set of beliefs. If we do not understand that the change must also reach the third level, our current identity will sabotage our attempts to change, because it is impossible to maintain a behaviour that conflicts with one’s own identity.
“Improvements are only temporary until they become part of who you are,” says the author, explaining that the goal should not be to read a book or do a few minutes/hours of physical exercise every week, but to become the kind of person who reads or is physically active.
Support from family and friends is very important, because many people do not manage to walk the path of change alone. Having someone to share our progress and failures with helps us to be more consistent. According to studies, the success rate of changing habits is much higher if both spouses are involved in the change.
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We should not underestimate the impact of the external environment. A study by researchers Brian Wansink and Koert van Ittersum showed that switching from large plates to plates with a diameter five centimetres smaller resulted in a 22 per cent decrease in calories consumed. The authors explained the difference by the presence of an optical illusion, the Delboeuf illusion, which causes the brain to misjudge size.
When we place a small portion of food on a large plate, our minds tell us that we are eating too little, but if the same portion is transferred to a small plate, our minds will tell us that we have plenty of food.
The study showed that the colour of the plates also matters—study participants ate 32 per cent more when the contrast between the colour of the plate and the food was minimal (for example, when pasta with tomato sauce was served on red plates).
The way we perceive a food’s fattening potential is different when sharing our plate of food with other people at the table, a study published in 2021 showed. Even when subjects have clear information about the number of calories, sharing the food on their plate reduces their perception of the fattening potential of the respective foods, and this underestimation occurs both in the case of healthy and unhealthy foods. Researchers talk about the fact that the feeling of lack of ownership convinces the brain to cheat during the process of counting calories. “When we see food on a shared plate, we still understand how many calories we are consuming, but we do not think that those calories will impact our waistline,” says researcher Nükhet Taylor.
Recovery from failure makes the difference between winners and losers
Failure is part of the process of change. As much as we would like it to be otherwise, change is not a linear process; we can fall back into old patterns of behaviour and very likely will do so repeatedly until the new habit becomes well ingrained.
Psychologist James Prochaska and his colleagues created the transtheoretical model of behaviour change, identifying the stages people go through when trying to form new habits or eliminate old ones:
The first stage is pre-contemplation, when the subject is not aware that their behaviour is an issue, and if they are, they have no intention of changing anything.
The second stage, known as contemplation—in which the individual may remain stuck for months or years—is when they become aware that their behaviour is problematic, but they endlessly debate the pros and cons of change, feeling unprepared to pay the price of change.
The third stage, preparation, occurs when the person decides that the benefits of the change outweigh the costs, expresses their intention to initiate the change, explores the steps to be taken, plans, and sets measurable objectives.
The fourth stage, action, is the one in which behavioural changes are carried out. It is the stage that demands the greatest amount of time and energy, in which the desire for change comes predominantly from within, and which lasts approximately six months.
The last and most important stage, maintenance, involves the integration of the change into the individual’s lifestyle for an indefinite period. At this stage, the new behaviour has already become sufficiently solid for the threat of relapse to be less intense or frequent.
In most cases, subjects will move from one stage to another at their own pace, making progress or regressing to the early stages of behavioural change, with the whole process resembling a spiral rather than a straight line.
Everyone has setbacks, bad days that interrupt the practice of the new habit, or emergencies that drain all their energy. However, what comes after failure is what matters. Some accelerate faster and faster on the road of renunciation; the ones who are guided by the “all or nothing” principle. Others know that neither success nor failure resides in a single action, but in the accumulation of thousands of seemingly insignificant actions.
On days when you feel like you can’t practise the new habit at all, it’s really important to try to maintain continuity, even if that means doing just one push-up—anything more than zero is a win, says James Clear. He illustrates his point with a mathematical calculation of the importance of consistency: “If you start with $100, then a 50 per cent gain will take you to $150. But you only need a 33 per cent loss to take you back to $100. In other words, avoiding a 33 per cent loss is just as valuable as achieving a 50 per cent gain.”
Carmen Lăiu is an editor at Signs of the Times Romania and ST Network.