Successful people set ambitious goals. But the high standards and lofty visions necessary for great success can sometimes be daunting. You may want to run a marathon, lose 50 pounds, or build a business empire, but you may quickly find yourself overwhelmed if you mentally focus on such ambitious goals.
The result can be procrastination, or even depression. Clinically depressed people often have goals that far exceed what they feel they can really accomplish. As a result, they often get stuck in a “paralysis of analysis” – finding themselves unable to initiate actions because they feel they need new skills or more information.
Fortunately, there is a great power in making small changes. Consider this sampling of findings from the research on health and weight loss…
Small changes have big impacts in other areas of life as well. Want to write a book? Write a page a day, and you can be an author within a year. An hour a day studying a new topic can lead to considerable expertise in just a few months. Plastic surgeons bring about dramatic changes in appearance with very small changes in facial structure. If the space shuttle’s trajectory is off by a fraction of a percent, it can end up being hundreds of miles from its destination. The list goes on.
So how do you leverage the big power of small changes? Try these three techniques…
1. Revel in small changes. Instead of beating yourself for not having accomplished your big goals, feel good about small improvements.
If you want to lose weight, start with small lifestyle changes such as taking stairs instead of elevators, substituting a glass water for one soda each day, waiting 20 minutes before deciding you want “seconds” at dinner, or eating just one more serving of vegetables each day.
The ancient wisdom of the I Ching states that the process of change should begin with the easy and the simple. Two thousand years later, experts on psychological change concluded that there are two crucial rules for shaping your own behavior: “(1) you can never begin too low, and (2) the steps upward can never be too small. When in doubt, begin at a lower level or reduce the size of the steps.”
2. Divide and conquer. Henry Ford said: “Nothing is particularly hard if you divide it into small jobs.” Elite athletes, for example, routinely set both long-term and short-term goals, but sports psychologists have discovered that repeatedly focusing on the long-term goals can be counter- productive. Instead, focusing on the short-term goals, and the small changes needed to achieve them, leads to more motivation, greater confidence, enhanced performance, and more happiness, both for athletes and non-athletes alike.
Basketball coach Larry Brown, who is currently leading the Detroit Pistons against the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA finals, typically starts each game by encouraging his team to “win the first three minutes.” He uses the same technique throughout the game, focusing his team on near-term goals and the small changes needed for victory. Football coaches often use a similar tactic, encouraging players to mentally consider the 16-game season as being comprised of four 4-game mini-seasons.
3. Schedule a time for small changes. Often we don’t simply don’t make the time for the small changes that can make big impacts. We may (wrongly) consider them to be inconsequential, or shy away from them because they remind us of how far we are from our more ambitious goals. Try scheduling a time for these modest behaviors, and sticking to it.
This technique is similar to “activity scheduling” – a tactic commonly used as one element of treating depression. Depressed people are often reluctant to engage in activities, such as going to a movie, even though they believe these activities will make them feel better. Committing themselves in advance to engaging in these activities can significantly boost their activity levels and their mood, helping to ensure they make the small changes that have big impacts.
The findings and recommendations in this article are based on scientific research published in peer-reviewed journals. For complete references, see Psychological Foundations of Success: A Harvard-Trained Scientist Separates the Science of Success from Self-Help Snake Oil by Stephen Kraus, Ph.D.
© 2004 Stephen Kraus