Better Living

Want to Change Yourself? Start Smaller

The overlooked and transformative power of maintaining small improvements
BY Mike Donghia TIMEMarch 25, 2022 PRINT

One of my favorite things is to find life-changing ideas that are hidden in plain sight. It’s far easier than you might think. These ideas are usually called “common sense.” Everyone knows they’re good ideas, but what they miss is that they are actually great ideas. The magic is in taking these simple ideas seriously and applying them with determination.

One common sense, but potentially life-changing, idea is that the best way to make a change in your life is to start small and choose just one area to change at a time. Do that, and you can avoid becoming an enthusiastic starter.

The Enthusiastic Starter

The idea of starting small sounds a bit unimpressive, right? You were hoping for something more innovative or ambitious or at least—original. While this idea might sound ordinary, I can say from experience that the real excitement is in seeing an area of your life change, where you’ve felt stuck for a long time.

A while back, I had a number of changes that I wanted to make. So, in a fashion that is typical of my personality, I created a long list of new daily habits, and downloaded an app to start tracking them all at once. After the enthusiasm of the initial week had come and gone, I began to dread my long list of aspirational habits. They felt like a ball and chain, rather than a buoy, to my motivation. It wasn’t long before I rationalized skipping a few days and then, quietly giving up on the attempt altogether.

I wish this story were a stand-alone example. It’s not. In many ways, it has been a recurring pattern in my life, and one that I also regularly hear from others.

A Simple Approach to Change

As a writer focused on simplicity and minimalism, you’d think it wouldn’t have taken me so long to realize that my approach to change was too complicated. But I was guilty on both fronts: in not taking my own medicine, and in complicating a process that could be wonderfully simple. When I finally decided to apply the principles of minimalism to changing myself, I discovered several significant benefits.

Starting small avoids the trap of perfectionism.

Many of us don’t want to start anything until we have the perfect plan in place. We want to explore all possible methods and weigh each one carefully before beginning. We rationalize all of the time this takes by telling ourselves that it’s better to measure twice and cut once.

But often this is just procrastination in disguise. We like the planning stage where everything feels neat and orderly, but we dread the doing stage, where things start to feel challenging and messy.

Starting small skips over the need for a perfect plan. Ask yourself: What is the smallest possible step I can take in the right direction? Often, the answer to that question is simple and concrete, which is exactly the right place to begin with change.

Starting small lowers the bar to getting started.

Almost all meaningful change involves going directly against deeply ingrained habits. If it’s a change that requires time, that time will need to come from somewhere. If it takes willpower, motivation will need to be present.

Your previous habits have wired your brain to make it easier to maintain those habits, because that is what your brain thought you wanted. But now that you have decided to change course, you are going to walk straight into the very headwinds that you created. The key to making it through this phase, when the headwinds are strongest, is to keep your desired changes small. I’m talking embarrassingly small.

It’s far more important to be consistent over a large number of days than to make drastic changes sporadically. If your change is too big, or if there are too many changes, you will need huge reservoirs of willpower and motivation. If the initial steps of your new habit are small enough (such as floss one tooth, walk for one minute, read one page), you will have virtually no reasonable excuse not to get it done.

Starting small allows motivation to grow.

It’s easy to feel motivated in the early stages of making a change to your life, but what really counts is sustaining that motivation long enough for a new habit to form. Of course, a new habit doesn’t mean the end of effort, only that you are now enjoying tail winds instead of facing headwinds.

Many people view motivation as a mysterious force but, in my experience, there is only one thing that consistently delivers motivation on demand: making progress. Making progress is the most intrinsically motivating thing you can do in nearly any situation. Of course, you might immediately recognize “the chicken or the egg” dilemma. How do I make progress if I’m not motivated?

Surprisingly, the brain seems to be equally motivated by progress, no matter how much. Even the smallest amount of progress will often do the trick. That’s another reason why starting small with change, and building a streak, is your best bet to staying the course.

Starting small builds a habit, not just a one-time change.

I’ve hinted at this effect in describing the other benefits of starting small, but it can’t be overstated. When you start small with a change, and repeat that small, positive action, over time, your brain gets busy building new pathways that will soon become a new habit.

Real change, the kind that results in a new identity, is rarely the result of a one-time Herculean effort. I have had so many of these “from this moment forward” moments in my life, where I willed myself to make an enormous change all at once. The results have never come close to the times when change started small and grew and grew and grew.

The key is to channel your ambition into the duration of your efforts, not the intensity. There is plenty of time to intensify the changes in your life once they have become a part of who you are.

Starting small plants the seed for future change.

With all of this talk about starting small, you may be thinking that your life will change at glacial speed when you adopt this approach. While it’s true that this method starts small, I have found that it shapes and reshapes your life in surprising ways.

Sometimes athletes who are in a slump or struggling to deal with the demands of a complex sport, are told by their coaches to focus on a single aspect of the game and let everything else happen intuitively. This time-tested wisdom has helped many athletes to make surprising gains in their performance.

The same happens to us. When we try to focus on too much, our attention is stretched thin, and progress across many areas can be slow. It’s hard to bring your best efforts all of the time. But then, when you really focus and are able to see clear, tangible progress in a single area, that often has a compounding ripple effect across other areas of your life, even without any conscious effort.

Starting small helps you enjoy the journey, not just the destination.

In our constant quest to change ourselves, it’s easy to forget that life is not a competition to be won, or simply a test to be passed. It is a gift. If your mindset is always focused on the destination—for example, the person you will be after the change has been completed—then you may come to resent the journey or see the present as merely an obstacle in your way.

Starting small with change reorients your attention from the end goal back to the daily practices that make up a life. Seeing small daily progress will be its own reward—completely separate from the satisfaction of having reached your goal. And this more realistic pace of living may open your eyes to new avenues of meaning and happiness in your life.

This article was first published in Radiant Life Magazine.

Mike Donghia
Mike (and his wife, Mollie) blog at This Evergreen Home where they share their experience with living simply, intentionally, and relationally in this modern world. You can follow along by subscribing to their twice-weekly newsletter.
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