Guest Post: “Shrink the Change” by Chris Kresser

If you’re changing habits, shrinking the change can help. Be sure to celebrate your successes, like these runners finishing a race.

Are you changing your habits? Maybe your goal is to eat healthierand lose a few pounds or get more sleep.

Whatever your objective, kudos for planning to improve your health and well-being. But do you know how to set yourself up for success? When it comes to making changes, should you think big or start small?

The answer may surprise you in our aim-high culture, yet decades of research have made it clear: you’re more likely to achieve your goals when they’re small and attainable. It’s humble, incremental shifts that truly help you alter long-held habits. Read on to learn how to “shrink the change” you hope to make in the coming months.

Want to keep your New Year’s resolutions? Try shrinking the change! Find out how to shrink big changes into manageable steps and get a free activity handout to help.

Forget Willpower—Here’s a Better Method for Changing Your Habits

If you believe that the key to changing an unhealthy habit is to grit your teeth and tap into an elusive thing called willpower, then you’re falling into an age-old trap—one that trips up even the most determined individuals.

When asked, many people regularly cite lack of self-control as the number-one reason they don’t follow through on lifestyle changes like eating right and exercising. (1) And yet the science shows that when it comes to changing your behavior, willpower isn’t as important as you might think—and it can even sabotage your efforts.

For example, past studies have found that people who say they have excellent self-discipline hardly use the skill: they simply don’t put themselves in positions in which they need to call on self-control in the first place. For example, they don’t white-knuckle their way into resisting candy bars or bags of chips. They just don’t keep this stuff around to tempt them. (23)

Piggybacking on these findings, recent research adds that those who do actually exert willpower aren’t necessarily more likely to accomplish their goals compared to those who don’t use willpower. Once again, it’s people who experience fewer temptations overall (who strive not to be tempted, versus not to act on temptation) who are more successful. (456) And here’s another strike against willpower: in this particular study, participants who exercised more self-control reported feeling exhausted from doing so.

This latter finding hits on a growing body of research into “willpower depletion,” the idea that willpower is a limited resource, one that becomes weaker and less reliable the more you tap into it. Think of self-control like a cell phone battery that charges while you rest; it’s full when you wake up, but runs down over the day. Willpower appears to literally drain your brain, negatively impacting cognition and functioning and thus your chances of meeting your goals. (And unlike a battery, you can’t just “recharge” your willpower overnight.) (7)

Your Strategy Instead? Think Small—Really, Really Small

As I see it, then, the best way to address the challenge of any big behavior change is to shrink the change down into small goals. That way, when it comes time to take action, willpower doesn’t even enter the equation.How small am I talking? Ridiculously small. You want your goal to be entirely doable.

Take this example. Say your overall aim is to reduce stress through a meditation practice. Instead of thinking, “Starting now I’m going to devote one hour a day to meditation practice,” start much (much) smaller. Your small steps for getting there might look something like this:

  1. Find a space in my house conducive to meditation. (If needed, the next goal could be to spruce up or reorganize the space.)
  2. Buy a meditation cushion.
  3. Download a meditation app, such as Headspace.
  4. Use the app one day this week to meditate for one minute at a time.
  5. Use the app two days next week to meditate for two minutes each time.

Keep going until you’ve worked your way up to regular, longer meditation sessions. Eventually, you’ll no longer need any guided help, and you’ll have built a new habit.

Here are some other ideas.

Big change: 

Be less sedentary and more physically active. (Hint: “Go to the gym five days a week” is likely too big)

Small goals: 

  • Buy a pedometer or fitness tracker this week
  • Take 2,000 steps a day next week by taking the stairs, taking walking breaks at work, and parking farther away
  • Call a friend and schedule a 30-minute walk in the next three days
  • Take that 30-minute walk

Big change: 

Get more sleep. (Hint: “Get to bed an hour earlier every night” is perhaps too big)

Small goals:

Big change:

Eat better. (Hint: “Cut out all fried foods and sweets” may be too big for you)

Small goals:

Notice something about these examples? They’re distinct and measurable. (Note the specific amounts, distances, time frames, and so on.) That’s because this strategy for behavior-change success isn’t only about making small goals—it’s also about tracking those goals and celebrating every incremental win.

As humans, we tend to focus on what’s wrong rather than what’s right. Making your progress visible and recognizing your victories fuels hope that you will accomplish what you’ve set out to.

Try This: Shrink the Change for Your Next Big Goal

Before you read any further, I want you to try this out for yourself. Get out a pen and piece of paper and take a moment to practice shrinking the change while it’s fresh in your mind.

First, select one behavior change you’d like to make for yourself within the next 30 days. List the small, concrete, and doable steps you can take to achieve this change. Try to limit yourself to just a few steps; don’t get bogged down listing everything at once.

Finally, for the steps you’ve outlined, list how you will track and celebrate each goal you accomplish.

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