When you decide to get healthy, it’s easy to look at your new and improved life in sweeping terms – ‘I’m going to lose a stone, only eat healthy food, and work out all the time.’
While it’s great to commit yourself to healthier habits, the problem with this broad approach is that these statements can feel overwhelming. One missed workout and you haven’t met your ‘all the time’ goal, or one ‘bad’ meal and you’re feeling like a failure.
The truth is, for actual change to stick, you need to look at in small, concrete steps, known as micro-actions. Here’s why:
1. Micro-actions have a proven success record
On average, nine out of 10 New Years resolutions fail – one study found that come June, only 4% of people who used ‘normal’ strategies were still sticking to the goals they set in January. But in one study, when a group made small, explicit promises like “I will walk to work daily”, 46% of people stuck to it. A small change – setting yourself a specific and tangible target to reach that day – gives you 11 times the chance of success. As BJ Fogg of Stanford University, an expert in behaviour change, explains:
“I’ve studied human behavior for 20 years…here’s what I’ve learned: only three things will change behavior in the long term. Option A: have an epiphany. Option B: change your environment. Option C: take baby steps”
What does a micro action look like?
If your goal is to lose weight – swap the unhealthiest thing on your plate for a piece of veg or fruit – or if that feels like too much just add a piece of veg or fruit to every meal. If you want to start meditating or try mindfulness but struggle to focus, simply sit quietly for just 5 minutes with a cup of coffee or tea, staring off into space (NO digital devices!). If you want to be more active, commit to doing 20 squats every day, even if you have to hide in a cubicle at work to do them.
2. Micro-actions are better for your brain
Your brain learns new patterns of behaviour best when it can focus. We experience hundreds of thousands of stimuli daily, and it quickly becomes impossible for the brain to keep up with multiple large changes when it’s so distracted. Plus, when you learn, your brain consumes a lot of glucose – but there’s only a finite amount of this energy source to go around. Changing too many things too quickly empties your energy stores, hence why it’s so easy to fall into old behaviour patterns (and also why you want to eat badly after a stressful day — the lack of glucose makes it more difficult to keep away from those biscuits!). But small, specific changes tied to a specific time or event in your day, on the other hand, allow your brain to focus so it can effectively start the learning (and habit changing) process.
Try this micro action:
Make the change easier for your brain by setting a trigger for it – combine it with something you’re already doing. For instance, have an apple every day with breakfast, set an alarm for a 10-minute desk break at 3pm to walk around the office, or do 25 squats while brushing your teeth.
3. A lot of micro actions add up to BIG change
Small actions may feel insignificant today, but over time they will grow into real change. When you do a small action and succeed, you get a sense of accomplishment and advancement – this makes you more likely to do it again, while also making you more likely to do any related actions (which is called a “habit of success”), thus triggering a virtuous circle. Caroline Arnold, author of Small Move, Big Change says:
“Examine your own self-improvement goals. If your goal is to lose weight, did you wake up ten pounds overweight one morning, or did you wake up one half ounce overweight many mornings (around 320, to be exact)? Did the pile of papers on your desk materialise instantly, or did it creep up one razor-thin paper at a time? Did your relationship sour in a single, epic argument, or did small gestures of disrespect slowly creep in? Once you recognise the power of small actions to create a negative trend, it’s easy to see how simple behavioral changes can spark a positive trend and significant results over time.”
Try this micro action:
Make your change process visual: stick a piece of paper on your fridge, and you tick off the days you did your squats or ate a healthy lunch (or whatever your goal).
4. Micro actions are far more enjoyable
It’s not rocket science that we’d rather do things we like than dislike. But did you know research shows when we enjoy a task, not only does it feel easier, but it also improves our results. So when it comes to your healthy goals, all you need to do is reframe the micro changes in your mind so they feel positive.
Try this micro action:
Instead of thinking “Walking 20 min to work will make me late and be a drag in bad weather,” swap it for: “Walking to work will not only add steps to my day, but give me time to clear my head, listen to relaxing music and come out energised!”