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?

Sticking at mindfulness meditation

Create a Mindfulness Habit

Sitting quietly for 20 or so minutes every day seems like such a simple thing – yet, it’s actually quite difficult for many of us.  We so used to doing, that something we perceive as not doing (just being) is hard to do.  It’s strange, if think about all the hours we work in order to take two weeks break away from it all, you’d think a 15 minute holiday every day would be easy.

If someone suggested that with 15 minutes of relaxed training a day, you could improve your mental performance, self-control, resilience, concentration, relationships with others, and reduce stress, do you think you would give it a go*?  In my experience, most people would, and do.

The problem comes a week or two down the road.  It’s difficult to feel like you are accomplishing anything during mindfulness practice – how can this relaxing, activity be doing me good; then add in that doing bias, and you have a recipe for lots of people to start mindfulness practice, only to give it up quite soon after.

If the benefits are real, and there are plenty of empirical studies that say they are, then how do we stay motivated to stick at our mindfulness practice?  Here are a few suggestions, see if any of them work for you…

Create a habit

Once it’s made its home in our regular schedule, anything becomes easier to do.  So, making it a habit is a good goal.  Association is one of the tricks to creating a habit – associate your mindfulness practice with… your morning coffee, do your practice then have your coffee; or practice before your shower; or after you’ve been to gym.  With association, you’re hooking your mindfulness practice to an existing habit.  Also, after you’ve practiced, giving yourself a reward will help cement it – so the coffee after your morning practice, or 5 minutes playing your favourite game, or a little taste of something sweet.

Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit, has plenty of examples on making and breaking habits, and he also offers a number of supporting resources, like a flow chart on habit creation in the resources section of his website, it’s worth a look.

A regular reminder of the benefits

Part of the problem with dwindling practice, is that the details of the benefits and the reasons why we first thought we’d like them, fade.

Do some of your own research on the benefits of mindfulness, and write yourself a personalised summary.  It doesn’t have to be elaborate, perhaps half a page on how repeated mindfulness practice might impact your life.  Now, take a copy of the benefits with you, in your bag or wallet, and take a look at the summary as you walk between meetings, commute to work, or take a break, reading your summary regularly.

I’m sure you can think of multiple variations on this theme, including re-writing the benefits from memory, writing a blog post about them (ahem), discussing the benefits with like minded friends, and so on.


This one is tried and tested… find a buddy who is already practicing mindfulness, or just starting, and practice together.  Or, agree to text each other after you’ve completed your practice, or some other model of mutual encouragement.  Or, if there is a group that practices regularly, join them.

Commitment contracts

Finally, a personal commitment contract might work.  This is a contract you make with yourself, committing you to regular practice – and if you fail to keep your commitment, there is a forfeit.  It might be, paying  money to a charity you don’t agree with, or denying yourself pudding, or … doing something else that you don’t like.  It doesn’t have to be big, just a little nudge to get you over the practice hurdle, while you’re still working on making it a habit.  It’s really useful to have a buddy to report to, even if they’re not practicing themselves.  You agree to tell them when you’ve done it, and if you don’t tell them, they ensure the forfeit goes ahead.

It’s worth checking out the website StickK where you can automate this process, for free!

Generally, it’s easy to see why we should practice mindfulness, the benefits generally out-way the costs.  But, regular practice for many of us, isn’t quite as easy as we’d imagine.  So, use that initial period of motivation to help create a habit that will keep you practicing for the long term.

Happy mindfulness habits,

New Year, New…


Will there be something new for you this new year?  Resolutions are perhaps the most common expression of ‘new’ at the start of the year, and resolutions have a reputation for not making it out of January.  There’s motivation to get us going, but often not quite enough to build any kind of momentum… and for self-driven change, we need the motivation to start things off and, to keep up the momentum long enough to reach the point where the change becomes self-fulfilling, and eventually part of life.

In business we’re more used to the idea of change – a new financial year might bring a new focus, or the release of new product may create new roles and opportunities to pursue.  The motivation for the change might be customer demand, competitive pressure, or shareholder demand for growth (or the fear of financial analyst derision in larger businesses).  Whichever it is, it’s often a motivator that’s ever present.  Then, there might be multiple people involved in the change, either supporting each other or otherwise keeping the pressure on.  There’s probably a regular progress report, describing what action has been taken and its effect since the last report… all sorts of things that together, provide enough continued motivation to push things along through the initial change phase and make it into the normal routine.

That’s not to say at work things are always that driven – what if we want to create something new or make a change that doesn’t have all that backing; something that will help us personally, or that we think will help the company, but we’d like to get started on it before getting others involved?

When I first thought about this post, I thought I’d provide some deep insights that make change stick, with a discussion of intrinsic verses extrinsic motivation and the science behind habits.  But I quickly realised that in most cases, it’s the simple stuff that makes the difference.  The real challenge with change, is finding the things that will keep the momentum going long enough.  So, here’s five simple, but powerful, things that will help you to keep your change beyond the end of January…

  • Do it with someone else or a team of others.
  • If you have to do it alone, ask a friend or colleague to hold you to account – perhaps you’ll phone them once a week and update them on progress.
  • Examine the reason you ‘want’ to do it – a ‘should’ is no where near as strong as a genuine ‘want’.
  • Find reasons to do it that are beyond yourself – are you also doing it for your colleagues, your department, your spouse, a friend or your children?  When it gets tough, think about who you’re doing it for.
  • Track progress and reward yourself for progress (it’s all about progress!) – a reward might be anything from a break for cup of tea, to an evening out or a holiday.

Stick at it… Happy New Year!

Be remarkable,