How To Change Your Life Permanently With Small Steps

small step

Small steps have no competition in personal development—their unflinching effectiveness embarrasses every other strategy.

Using small steps, I got in great shape, wrote a book (about them, using them), and read 10x as many books as I used to… all at the same time. I made more progress in a year with small steps than five years using other strategies (a literal comparison).

Are You Moving Forward Every Day?

If you’re not currently moving forward in your happiness, finances, relationships, or career, then sorry, but what the heck are you doing? Your vigor for life will drain out slowly like honey from a broken jar if you aren’t making daily progress in some way. You don’t have to set records, but you owe it to yourself to live the best life you can. So how can you do it?

The determining factors of your success or failure to make progress are simply:

  1. What strategies are you using to move forward?
  2. Are you succeeding consistently with these strategies?

If you don’t say yes to the second question, you’ll underperform your potential. You’ll be a confused mess of ups and downs. I know because I’ve been there. I don’t mean ups and downs as in the general nature of life’s unpredictability, I mean ups and downs in doing 100% achievable things. You’ll have downs when it’s possible to have 100% ups in an area. For example, if you want to read every day, there is no reason to ever fail that goal. The same goes for writing, exercising, your diet, and anything else you can control.

Some say this type of failure is due to having low standards, and that you need to raise your standards to succeed, but that sets off my motivational BS detector. You know why? You have to earn a higher standard. Successful people (in any area) have high standards because they’re successful. They’ve proven to themselves that they can perform at a high level. I’m not talking about having to become a millionaire or get on Oprah to raise your standards. I’m saying you need to experience some personal success to achieve permanently higher standards.

Our living standards are based on our history (and habits). That’s where the word “standard” comes from—it’s your standard way of living. A motivational speaker will tell you to raise your standard to do more and be more, but isn’t that what we generally try to do anyway? Who isn’t trying to improve themselves in ways that matter to them? Is a speech encouraging us to “be great” enough to change us? No. No. NO!

This is why strategy matters. Your life strategy is your chosen method for leveraging your current skills and habits into something greater. Spoiler (highlight to see): if your life strategy isn’t small steps, you’re doing it wrong.

And The Best Strategy For Life Is…?

Let’s use the example of reading to browse the principles of different life strategies for doing more:

  • You aim to read. (vague all around)
  • You aim to read a 250 page book every day. (big aim, specific amount, flexible with a deadline)
  • You aim to read one page in a book every day. (small aim, specific amount, flexible with a deadline)
  • You aim to read one book per week. (vague because book sizes vary significantly, flexible with a deadline)
  • You aim to read 20 pages in a book at 3:30 PM every day. (moderate aim, specific amount, inflexible with a rigid schedule)

Each of these is a possible strategy, and they can be combined in different ways. This number of options can cause choice paralysis, and very often, it will cause you to do the easy thing and adopt a common goal that you’ve heard elsewhere. The danger in this is that most people fail to reach their targets, so you might be copying a failing strategy.

Existing habits are usually stronger than people’s willpower strength to override them with their new goals over the long term. That’s why taking small steps stands apart as most effective among these strategies listed—they don’t require hardly any willpower, they’re specific targets by nature, and anyone can start with them. I stress anyone because there are some people out there who are completely controlled by their subconscious mind right now (and more than you’d think). So a strategy that works at all levels is essential, as it allows you to scale up from wherever you are.

So for the above example, reading one or two pages in a book per day (or at a specific time) is the best strategy for success, for more reasons than currently covered.

Can You Win The Willpower Battle?

Every attempt to change a behavior or start a new one is a battle of willpower vs. resistance (though it is a factor, I won’t even mention motivation here since it is completely unreliable as a starting strategy). Small steps require little to no willpower, and having a strategy that requires little to no willpower means that you should be able to win the resistance battle every time. Can you imagine winning every time? You won’t have to imagine if you learn to harness the power of small steps (go read Mini Habits if you haven’t yet).

Despite having sub-par willpower strength (probably due to my years of video game indulgence), I don’t fail to exercise, read, or write anymore. Not during Christmas or vacations. Never. It’s not impressive, it just works. Trust me, I’d rather not “boast” about writing at least 50 words every day. It doesn’t draw many “oooh” and “ahhh” reactions.

I have said that mini habits apply to good habits only, and that’s true. But the core idea of Mini Habits—small steps—can also help uproot bad habits.

Do You Know Life’s Law Of Motion?

There’s a concept I’ve noticed which is very consistent in life. If I were tasked to name it, I’d choose “Life’s Law Of Motion.” This name is based on Isaac Newton’s laws of motion because it’s the same concept, but applies to all of life instead of just the physics of motion. Here’s the gist of Newton’s first law of motion (from wikipedia):

  • An object that is at rest will stay at rest unless an external force acts upon it.
  • An object that is in motion will not change its velocity unless an external force acts upon it.

Life is largely determined by what direction we move. If we can move in the ideal direction most of the time, then we’ll have a great chance of continuing to do ideal things most of the time. If we move in the wrong direction frequently, we’ll constantly need to put on the brakes and then try to move in a positive direction. If the latter sounds like you, it’s because your subconscious mind habitually starts you off in the wrong direction, and then you have to fight to redirect yourself all the time. It’s tough.

When thinking in terms of normal goals, it sounds like trite information—of course when you move forward good things happen, but the problem is that people have trouble moving forward! When you think in smaller steps, however, it becomes a profound insight. When you take one small step forward, and do it repeatedly, you gain the incredible benefits of Life’s Law Of Motion without requiring much effort or wasting your important willpower reserves. There is nothing trite about that!

How To Combat Bad Habits With Life’s Law Of Motion

To use the law of motion principle against your bad habits, employ a rerouting strategy: quickly take one small step in a different direction than your undesired behavior(s) when tempted.

A multitude of studies find that simple one-on-one resistance against bad habits works poorly, as the temptation will wear down and outlast people’s willpower. And when you resist something directly, you actually pay more attention to it and wind up continually retriggering your temptation! I can tell you not to think about a red elephant, but that will make you far more likely to think of a red elephant.

redelephant

Do NOT look at the red elephant one more time after reading this sentence.

I won’t smoke. *temptation to smoke* I won’t smoke. *temptation to smoke* I won’t smoke. *temptation to smoke* Eh…anyone have a light?

If you try really hard not to think about doing something, you’ll think about it even more. Do you know the scientific reason why this is a problem? Human willpower is limited. Your willpower energy to resist the temptation decreases with each iteration.

From this, we can see that momentum works both ways. When a bad habit temptation hits you, the ball has already started rolling down the bad habit track and you’re at a disadvantage. You must stop this momentum FAST and reroute it before it picks up speed and you’re forced to light up a Virginia Slim.

The Two Action Requirements For Rerouting A Bad Habit Are Fast Speed & Small Size

We know habits form by conscious decisions moving to the subconscious part of the brain, where they’re made automatic. To remove a habit, then, we must reverse this process by making the automatic behavior a conscious decision again. The best way to do this is by introducing a competing behavior (i.e. creating an alternative neural pathway to reroute to when “triggered”).

Note: research suggests that you can’t completely “remove” a strong habit from the brain, but you can severely weaken its power by not doing it.

To succeed, you must be aware of bad habit temptations as they first appear. This is done with mindfulness, which is being aware of what you’re doing and thinking (and why). The mindfulness habit can be developed directly with practice (set an alarm for random times and when it goes off, analyze what you’re doing and why), or your can develop it naturally by building other (mini) habits. It’s even possible to develop mindfulness in concert with your bad habit reversal plan. The reason you need mindfulness is to be able to notice a bad habit before it’s too late to stop it.

Then, once you notice a bad habit surfacing, act swiftly and act small. Abrupt, small actions work because they set you in motion in another direction with speed and ease, which gives you a great opportunity to escape your bad habit. Your actions need to be small because you can’t afford to fight TWO sources of resistance (resisting a bad habit + forcing another action) when time is of the essence.

Like Newton’s law says, “An object that is in motion will not change its velocity unless an external force acts upon it.” This small step is the external force that “acts upon” your bad habit process and begins a new path of momentum toward something else. And then you have a small amount of momentum in the right direction.

How To Choose An Alternate Behavior

Your alternative route should be something completely unrelated to the bad habit (because of the red elephant concept). You want to move your mind and/or body away from your temptation. Here are some examples:

  • The urge to smoke hits you, so you call a friend to talk about Chinese manufacturing or the NFL
  • The urge to waste time on Facebook hits you, so you leave your phone/computer behind and read one page in a book
  • The urge to eat ice cream hits you, so you eat ice cream (sorry, I like ice cream)

Pick something that will engage your mind enough to compete with your bad habit (deciding to clap your hands isn’t enough to take your mind off of smoking, but talking to a friend might be); you’ll want to have it decided in advance. You may also want to select several backup plans (A,B,C,D,E) in case the temptation appears a second and third time and you don’t want to annoy your friend.

The more you repeat this alternate behavior, the easier it will be to choose it in the future. Amazingly, it may become harder to choose your bad habit. Sometimes I struggle to watch movies because my brain prefers to do something more meaningful. I haven’t figured out if I like this or not.

brainpath

Going into this scary path is similar to veering off from a bad habit. It’s scary and uncomfortable, but you can do it one small step at a time. Watch out for snakes.

A bad habit is the like a main trail running through your brain’s woods. Many people get on the trail and try to turn around, but their brains have other plans. Instead of resisting in this way, veer off into your uncharted “alternate behavior territory” early in the process. Do it the next time too. Over time, another trail will form from repeated usage. And then you’ll be walking in your brain’s woods, find yourself on this alluring bad habit trail, and see the fork. Take the now-familiar fork to reroute yourself to a better place. Making and breaking habits is being a trailblazer in your own brain!

This process is still difficult—even with small steps—because bad habits offer a (usually significant, short term) reward to the brain. This means you’re going to have willpower depletion no matter what strategy you use. A good way to compensate for this is to divert to the small, abrupt behavior and immediately reward yourself for it. You can see some reward ideas on minihabits.com.

It Works For Positive Behaviors Too!

Mini Habits is about using consistent small steps to develop healthy new habits, so I won’t get into too much detail here. But I’ll mention how you can change a bland, boring, or depressing moment into something positive.

If you feel stuck, tired, or depressed, make an abrupt decision to do something very small but positive (something you can’t say no to). Again, it’d be good to have some ideas in advance: my go-to idea is crazy, wild dancing, as you’ll see in the example below. Hey, dancing makes you smarter! You’ll be amazed at how quickly this technique can pull you out of a funk. I’ll reiterate that the keys to success here are the same as with bad habit diversion—speed and small size.

Live Update Example: After a big lunch, and as I was typing this in my bed, I felt very tired (writing in bed isn’t the best idea?). Even though I didn’t want to sleep, I began to concede that sleep was inevitable; it was as if I was watching something happening, rather than being in control. That’s when I jumped out of bed and did some illegally fresh dance moves. That woke me up, and I went back to typing in bed. The sleepiness returned. I jumped up again, and ended up “wrestling” with my cat in the hallway. I wrestle cats, by the way. Now I’m back at my (stand up) desk with some energy. Before you concede to a feeling that isn’t ideal, force yourself to do something small but positive/energizing and you’ll be amazed at how well it works. This too, works by Life’s Law Of Motion. 

Small Steps Offer The Highest Reward-To-Effort Ratio Of Any Strategy

A behavior’s reward-to-effort ratio stands for how big the payoff is relative to the preceding action. Drinking mud for 50 cents has a very low reward-to-effort ratio, while drinking a milkshake for a million dollars has a very high reward-to-effort ratio.

Bad Habits’ generally high reward-to-effort ratios are why they are so easy to develop. The brain thinks, I can just drink alcohol all the time and feel good? I’ll do it! But that oversimplified thought is how some people become alcoholics, which can ruin their health, their relationships, and their lives. And the fact that some people ruin their lives with alcoholism and still drink alcohol shows the impact that high reward-to-effort behaviors have on the brain as well as the power of habits.

If you haven’t read Mini Habits, this post might seem incomplete. That’s because it is incomplete. A 33,000 word book can say a lot more (and include more research) than this long blog post can. If you think I want you to buy and read Mini Habits, you are correct. Trust me…if you enjoy what you’re reading here, you will love Mini Habits. Some people will read every post on this blog, but won’t read the best work I’ve ever produced. That’s weird to me. I’m unrealistic enough to think that everyone should read Mini Habits. I think they should require it in schools. The tagline of smaller habits, bigger results isn’t a marketing gimmick, it’s TRUE. If you have read Mini Habits, thank you so much for supporting my mission to change people’s lives by sharing strategies that work and exposing the ones that don’t.

Before we cover the reward-to-effort ratio of small steps, let’s consider the reward-to-effort ratios of big goals.

Big Goals (lose 100 pounds): The effort involved in losing 100 pounds is huge, but so is the end reward. This would seem like an even reward-to-effort ratio, but there’s more to it. The problem with big goals is that there is ONE reward, it only comes at the end, and you only get it if you reach the goal. Your brain spits at this scenario like a llama. You can lose 90 pounds and still feel a little bit like a failure because you missed your mark. You might be pretty happy to lose 90 pounds, but you won’t feel completely satisfied if your goal was 100 pounds.

Anything less than feeling like a hero after so much hard work is absolutely unacceptable. And in the context of reaching your big goal, those individual workouts or daily dietary choices that fuel success won’t feel like success—they’ll just feel small. In short, the reward-to-effort ratio of big goals looks even, but is actually very low, and that’s why 92% of people fail their big resolutions (Univ. Stanford).

Small Goals (one push-up every day): Smaller, frequent goals give you smaller rewards in greater quantity and frequency. This is what the brain responds well to—successful feelings paired with the individual actions that bring long term success. The human brain is a bit insecure in that it needs constant nurturing and reassurance. Unlike big goals, your efforts will feel like BIG successes in comparison to your “stupid small” goals. It feels far better to aim for 50 words and overachieve with 3,000 than it does to aim for 5,000 words and “only” write 3,000. This explains how small goals can offer such a high reward-to-effort ratio, and why they’re so effective.

Stop Wanting The Big Win

It would be nice to win the lottery, write a bestselling book, lose a huge amount of weight, travel to every country in the world, or [fill in the blank]. But wanting these big wins is detrimental to achieving them. Change your desire to small wins—saving an extra $5 a day, writing 100 words a day, exercising a little bit every day, or planning a single trip. When you pursue small, consistent victories, they become bigger victories. Here’s what small, consistent victories have done for me…

  • One push-up a day = best shape of my life
  • Writing 50 words a day = writing 4x as much, which resulted in an Amazon bestselling book and rapidly growing Deep Existence traffic & subscribers
  • Reading 2 pages per day = reading 10x as much as before (I didn’t read much before, haha)

Each of those small goals gets me started. They’re recurring sparks that allow me to take advantage of momentum (i.e. Life’s Law Of Motion), and I’ll most often continue in the right direction. These small requirements also prevent me from entering into ruts, which were commonplace before. Over time, the momentum effect from individual small actions accumulates into a larger wave of momentum even greater than the sum of its parts. And when these begin to form into habits, that’s when you become unstoppable. A good habit automatically starts you out on the right path. It’s ideal.

If you’ve been reading Deep Existence very long, you may have noticed a few months ago that I began posting more frequently and with greater depth (such as my ultimate guides). While doing this on Deep Existence, I was writing a book, writing lengthy Tuesday messages, and guest posting on another blog at least once a week. All of these changes happened at once, which is where the 4x figure comes in. Between reading and writing, mini habits have easily quintupled my productivity and progress in life.

Small Steps Are Precise, Not Weak

This idea that we should have impressive goals is widespread. The stigma with small goals is that they’re a sign of weakness—it’s a hard notion to shake even when you know the truth. The (incorrect) assumption that causes this stigma is that a person sets goals at or near his or her maximum ability. If you believe this, you’ll set big goals because you want to be able to reach them.

When you aim to do one push-up a day, you might feel inadequate against someone who tells you they are going to do 100 push-ups per day. But when it comes to actually doing the work, who do you think is more likely to feel inadequate compared to their goal? Who do you think has the best chance at hitting their target every time?

It doesn’t matter what your intention sounds like—it only matters how your intention affects your results.

The information is out there. Consistency trumps all because habits are formed by it, and they are the most important facet of every person’s life (habits are an estimated 45% of all human behavior). So a strategy that empowers you to act consistently no matter how you feel is going to work well.

As the subhead of this section is titled, small steps are precise. People who use small steps understand resistance, limited willpower, and know that all big accomplishments have a first step. The guy who does 100 push-ups has to start with one push-up. When you take away the burden of action that comes from lofty goals, you can move ahead easily. I hesitate to say it’s easy, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t easy for me. Writing 50 words a day is easy, and the impact it’s had on me is absolutely massive.

You’ll see people who aim to write 2,000 words per day and hit that target every time. That’s great. They’ve built the discipline and willpower to do it. But if you’re just starting out at something, don’t try to copy successful people who have been doing it longer than you. Their brain is wired to succeed at what they do, and yours will need to be trained to reach that level of consistency and production.

Small steps aren’t a fad. They aren’t a gimmick. They can work for every person and they’re the key to changing your life.

If you want to go deeper into the world of small steps and how they can enable you to develop powerful habits to last a lifetime (again, this is not hype—mine have been going strong for months, which is unprecedented for me), make the best investment of your life and read Mini Habits. It has the science to make everything in this article even more profound (and it currently has all 5 star reviews!).

Whether you use neuroscience, logic, or experience as your basis, all signs point to small steps being the most effective strategy for taking action, and doing it consistently.

photos by mikebairdandrew.napiergoldberg

About the Author

I'm lazy, but you can call me Stephen. When you're as lazy as I am, you need superior strategies to live well. My strategies are so effective that I'm productive every single day. As the world tries to figure out how to always stay motivated, I create strategies that don't require it.

Derek McCullough

Stephen,

This post is amazing. Truly. I started reading your blog about 2 months ago and I’ve agree with so much of what you have to say. One of my goals for this year is to completely read every article I start, and I was worried about this one because of length, but you made it easy.

I really love your use of similes throughout as I’m a metaphor and analogy guy myself.

I’ve always preached the idea of using small goals to build up to major achievements, but never had I thought of it in the way you stated. Small, precise goals. I think I was missing the precise part, but I definitely won’t from now on.

In fact, I think you’ve given me the drive to create a couple small, precise goals for myself. I’ll start with 3 pull-ups a day, your 50 words a day, and 1 lb a week (man, Christmas fattens me up, haha)

Anyways, I really wanted to comment saying that I loved you saying you have to earn a higher standard. It made me think of my own philosophy that you have to earn larger and larger uses of your unlimited potential. I believe we’re limitless, but only when we work up to larger and larger successes.

As the old adage goes, Rome wasn’t built in a day!

Stephen Guise

I appreciate that, Derek.

Speaking of precise goals, I would recommend reconsidering your 1 lb a week goal. That can be problematic because it isn’t a directly achievable goal. You have to do other things in order to lose one pound (such as exercise, eating well). Without a directly achievable objective, you muddle the lines between successful actions and failure, which tends to muck everything up in my experience. Also, when you think of your one pound goal, your brain has to convert it into some kind of action, which can add a surprising amount of resistance.

An example: My current goal is to fix my sleep schedule (again, sigh). But that alone is too vague—it would require things like setting an earlier bedtime, setting my alarm for earlier, and being able to get up quickly when it goes off. So my mini habit is to practice getting up to my alarm at least one time per day. It’s an achievable goal that will prepare my brain to respond correctly to the alarm clock, which will help me succeed with the general goal of having a better sleep schedule.

When it comes to weight loss, I think aiming for the weight drop doesn’t work as well as a strategy that addresses the behaviors that cause weight loss (your pull-ups, for example). And personally, my weight fluctuates in a 2-4 pound range anyway, so I’m not sure how you’d measure it (perhaps weighing in at the same time of day?).

Wishing you success with your plans!

Derek McCullough

I was thinking that same thing all day. I always fluctuate all the time. I need to re-evaluate that one, but have come up with some more, so I really appreciate this. I’m going to check out your new book, too.

I’m sure that I’ll have a better understanding once I read it. I find it so useful that I’ll likely review and and suggest it to my readers. I’ll contact you with a link when I do.

Stephen Guise

If you like this post, the book really fleshes out the research and basis for this strategy on another level. It has a lot more science in it to support the points. Feedback has been overwhelmingly positive so far (rated 4.9 out of 5 on Amazon).

Thanks very much, Derek! I’ll check out your blog.

Duff McDuffee

Interesting post. Are you familiar with BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits?

I like your examples, especially linking the start of the behavior to an alternate. I’d suggest the alternate, healthy behavior though should be always available (unlike calling a friend), and change the context in some way.

For instance, for compulsive internet behavior like Facebook, I suggest something like this:

If I catch myself compulsively checking Facebook, I will stand up and walk out of the room.

That should be enough to interrupt the behavior temporarily and allow a space in which one can then choose healthier behaviors.

Stephen Guise

Yes, I know of Tiny Habits. It’s solid.

That’s a brilliant suggestion! I was thinking of having a “list” of sorts to run through—call friend, and if no answer, leave the room, etc. The only reason for that is that interacting with a friend is a form of reward that could be a more powerful bad habit deterrent. Other than that, or perhaps despite that, I think your idea is better.

I checked out your blog and liked it, by the way, but you haven’t posted for a while. Are you going to start writing for it again?

Duff McDuffee

Thanks, Stephen. Yea, I think your writing and thinking about personal development has similar values to mine.

I’m working on a coaching product right now so I’m not putting any focus on blogging at the moment. Someday I’d like to write a book too, but first I’d like to try and make some money. 🙂

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