Small actions, big changes

We know how leverage works – as Archimedes is quoted as saying, ”give me a lever long enough and a place to stand and I shall move the world.”  Or said in another way, it’s not the size of the task; it’s how I go about it. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time, etc. etc., we know the theory.

A habit is anything we do or think automatically in response to a trigger or prompt.  When we get dressed in the morning, we likely put on clothes in the same order, or whenever I hear that voice, I get a burst of excitement… or dread.  These automatic ways of doing things rule much of our lives (lesson one of my mindfulness course – running on autopilot.)

It’s these automatic ways of responding that have got you to where you are today, though admittedly with the occasional tough decision, whether chosen or forced along the way.

If we want to create change in our lives, we often start by imagining where we want to be, which might look very different from where we are now.  Whether it’s a promotion or new job, losing or gaining weight, a career switch, a change of partner or close relationship, moving home, and so on.  Each of these and any significant change will require a myriad of actions, and each action will require a decision.

Any decision requires a process, and the outcome isn’t fixed, hence the term ‘decision.’  Yet, it is in these decisions that we often fail. Making one decision at the start might be easy. Making decisions every day, or multiple times every day, when any of those outcomes could take you toward or away from your intended change is often the problem.

Back to habits.  How hard is the decision to clean your teeth at night?  Is there even a decision at all?  It’s just what you do, there’s no noticeable decision at all.  And that’s what we want to leverage.

For change x, what daily actions, y and z, can you make habitual?  Or, how can I take away the need to decide and just do y and z.

One approach that might help cultivate automatic is to make the things you want to do as easy as possible and things you don’t want to do as hard as possible.

I love crisps / chips.  I also know that if I were to eat them every day, it wouldn’t support my health goals.  One way to achieve ‘fewer crisps’ is not to buy them.  If I really wanted some, I’d have to make a special trip to the shop – which is a barrier bigger than my desire, most of the time.  But, I chose to carry on buying them, deciding to only eat crisps on weekends and to remove them from my kitchen so I wouldn’t have to make the decision every time I opened the food cupboard!  At my house, you’ll find crisps in the cupboard with coats and shoes… which works for me.

On days when I do formal exercise, I get dressed in workout gear as soon as I get up.  It takes away a decision and action (to get changed).

These are simple examples, though they are real, and both lead to meaningful outcomes for me that were once part of a change to focus deliberately on my health.

Is there a change you want to make?
• If so, what are the small actions you can take each day that will eventually deliver that change?
• When you know the actions, how can you make them automatic?

Don’t depend on willpower

Sometimes change is easy; perhaps you or someone you know changed or started a new habit and found it straightforward. But, it’s not the typical path. We might decide to eat differently, maybe following the 16/8 fasting approach we’ve heard about, where you eat within an 8-hour window (and so not eat for 16 hours), deciding, for example, that you won’t eat after 7.30pm or before 11.30am.

In the moment we make the decision, we’re healthy, not hungry, and the evidence seems to suggest it’s worth trying this fasting approach, so it’s an easy decision.

The first day, buoyed with enthusiasm, we follow the approach. The next day, Friday, we’re watching our favourite TV show at 9pm, the one where we usually have a glass of wine, or our favourite snack… and we’re faced with the reality of craving. Aghh, I really want that snack and come on, it is Friday, and so the craving wins. And that’s the end of this silly 16/8 fasting lark.

The challenge is not just establishing a new habit; it’s dealing with all the existing ones! We often put too much trust in our willpower which is often not up to the job. To say this isn’t to suggest that any of us is weak. In our example, the combination of habit, emotion and biology are all rooting for the wrong side, and willpower is easily overwhelmed.

Those with the best results know not to rely on willpower. What we need are strategies! Firstly, anticipate the craving (or remember it from the past), and decide what to do when it inevitably comes — when faced with the craving, what will you do?

The strategies don’t have to be complex or sophisticated, how one or more of:

  • Drink water – expanding the stomach can reduce hunger perception
  • Clean your teeth – who wants to spoil that minty freshness
  • Sit in a different seat – the trigger leading to craving may depend on several time and place elements coming together
  • Remove the snacks – don’t buy them, hide them, lock them up, …
  • Allow snacks once per week, e.g. only on Fridays
  • Get support from family, friends, a coach, or community
  • Watch a different program

These examples may or may not work for you, the key is to use strategies that don’t leave you at the whim of willpower.

If you find change difficult, then welcome to club human. Disrupting established patterns in our lives, even when we know they are unhelpful patterns, can include a mix of physical and mental obstacles that make change messy.

So, if you’re using the new year as an opportunity to initiate change, go for it, but take along a bag of strategies to support you along the way.