If you had to pick just one small change you’d like to make in the new year, what would it be? Something manageable. Like committing to sharing one new idea with your boss each month. Skipping a latte here and there and then treating yourself to a massage. Shutting down email for an hour every afternoon.
Small changes, even tiny ones, can have huge impact over time. And you’re so much more likely to keep doing them if they get wired into your habits and don’t constantly require a new supply of motivation. With a few cues from the author of the best-seller Tiny Habits, you can create little everyday prompts that can drive big change over the course of a year. What will yours be?
Why tiny is so big
When we want to make a change or add something new to our lives, we often think big. We decide to start a whole new way of eating. Take our career in a new direction. Go to the gym every day. Or renovate the house. While there is nothing wrong with big goals, the key to reaching them is found in small actions taken every day. The pitfall of big, exciting goals is that the motivation felt while setting them often disappears quickly. That’s when tiny shines.
Tiny is fast, safe, something you can usually start immediately, relies much less on huge motivation and willpower, and can still be wildly transformative, according to BJ Fogg, Ph.D., Founder of Stanford University’s Behavior Design Lab and author of the best-selling book Tiny Habits.
“The essence of Tiny Habits is this,” Fogg writes. “Take a behavior you want, make it tiny, find where it fits naturally in your life, and nurture its growth. If you want to create long-term change, it’s best to start small.”
Start with 30 seconds
When Fogg says “tiny,” he means really, really tiny. When he decided to start flossing his teeth regularly, he first committed to a habit of flossing just one tooth! Because most people feel pressed for time, Fogg focuses on starting habits that you can do in only 30 seconds. This way, you can start on the path to a new habit without feeling overwhelmed. No matter how stressed and time-starved you might feel, a truly tiny new habit can fit into your life.
Build on success
Another reason Fogg advocates starting with small, doable habit changes is that a sense of accomplishment is one of your greatest tools for making changes that stick. Fogg calls feeling successful the “single most important skill in behavior change.” It’s important to internalize this part of his strategy because our society, and perhaps especially the business world, heavily promotes the message of going big.
But resist the urge to grow your goals too quickly. Instead, bask in the idea of incremental progress. Let the small successes help you build the momentum to keep going and growing. “People get frustrated and demoralized when things don’t happen quickly,” Fogg writes. “It’s natural. It’s normal. But it’s another way we’re set up to fail.” Making regular, small steps toward a larger goal is more reliable than an initial flush of motivation to go big or go home.
The power of prompts
A key component of Fogg’s method for driving behavior change is the use of prompts, or linking things you want to do to things you’re already doing. This works even if the two actions are unrelated. His easily remembered acronym for this approach is ABC: Anchor, Behavior, Celebration.
Start with an existing routine or event that already happens in your life. For example, if you brew coffee every morning, you could link your desired new behavior to that moment. You might sit quietly with your eyes closed for that minute or two if you want to start a meditation habit. Get down on the ground and do 10 sit ups or grab some weights and do a few curls. You could read one page in a book. Your prompt could also be something like signing off your computer for the day or seeing the closing credits of a Netflix show.
This anchor will serve as a prompt that it’s time to do your new behavior and avoids the problem of simply forgetting about it or constantly having to decide when to do it. Just pick an anchor that enables you to perform the activity at that time and that, preferably, has the flexibility to allow your habit to grow. Over time, this approach becomes a system of “chaining” where you connect numerous desired behaviors together.
The B in the ABC mnemonic stands for the Behavior you choose. Just remember to start small. The C is for celebrate. You can smile to yourself, say “Yes” or pump your fist, but don’t skip this step. Celebrating your success is a key component to driving your next win.
Having big goals for 2023 is great. Just remember to approach them like eating an elephant —small bites (or steps) you can build on over time.