Pebbles on the water

What is the power of one small behavioural change to improve life prospects? Can a single shift in behaviour really lead to better health, stronger relationships, greater success at work, increased financial security or a more orderly existence?

You can answer this question for yourself simply by examining your self-improvement objectives. If your goal is to lose weight, is it because you woke up 5kg overweight this morning? More likely you woke up 15 grams overweight on many mornings [around 333 mornings, to be exact]. Did the overflowing pile on your desk materialise in an instant, or did it creep up one razor-thin paper at a time? Did your relationship sour due to a single, epic argument, or did small gestures of disrespect and discontent slowly creep into your daily interactions? Did you fail to complete a top priority at work because you deliberately ignored it day after day, or did a hundred small distractions keep you from ever gaining traction?

It’s the margins that matter

Once you acknowledge the power of small actions to create a negative effect, it’s easy to understand how just one behavioural change can create a positive trend with lasting results. The truth that I discovered for myself and wrote about in my book Small Move, Big Change is that the real action in personal development happens at the margin of our behaviour, what I sometimes call the vital margin. While it’s heartening to believe that we can transform ourselves from the inside out with a single decree-to-self to become fit, slender, organised, on time, thrifty or clutter free, the real traction in personal development comes from targeting marginal behavioural changes and practising them until they stick. In self-improvement, it’s working the margin that gives you the edge.

Let’s take a simple example of how a small move can lead to a big change in a classic self-improvement area: diet. Dropping pounds weighs in at number one on the global list of New Year’s resolutions, a midnight pledge that often leads to a crash diet which itself crashes after a only a week or two of effort. As an alternative to taking such drastic actions, what might the benefits be of making a microresolution not to eat after dinner?

  • Fewer calories consumed
  • Better sleep [smaller digestive load]
  • Earlier bedtime [because food acts as a stimulant]
  • Better hormonal balance [because the key hormones that regulate appetite and satiation require 7.7 hours of sleep]
  • Increased appetite for breakfast [the most important meal of the day].

Cartoon portrait of a man smoking many cigrattes at one timeAs if that weren’t enough, a new study [1] conducted by the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego, and published in Cell, demonstrates that restricting food consumption to a 12-hour period creates the conditions for maintaining a trim profile. The study found that rats whose eating was limited to 12-hour time span were leaner and healthier than rats fed the same number of calories without time restrictions. Rats that got fat eating around the clock lost weight when they were switched to the restricted hour regime. This is just the latest piece of research demonstrating that when you eat can be as important as what you eat, and that a change at the margin can have a big impact.

New weight loss models reinforce that trimming calories at the margin of your daily diets can have a major impact on weight loss.  For every 100 calories you eliminate [that extra piece of bread, half cup of rice, a cookie], you’ll lose ten pounds over three years, five in the first year. The key to lasting weight loss is identifying routine eating behaviours that can be modified to achieve a sustainable reduction in calories. Do you eat while cooking? While clearing up? Do you accompany every beer with a hefty snack? Just one or two adjustments to your eating routine can reverse an upward weight trend. After years of desperate dieting with no long-term results, I began targeting small behavioural changes through microresolutions and lost 22 pounds in about 14 months [and kept it off]. My very first microresolution: never to eat a conference room cookie again.

When you eat can be as important as what you eat, and that a change at the margin can have a big impact

The role of routine

Understanding the role routine plays in your life is critical for success in self-improvement. Most of your daily activity is managed by a kind of personal autopilot, operating mindlessly in the background while you’re thinking big thoughts, solving problems, and experiencing new things. You don’t have to concentrate to tie your shoes, lock the front door, or navigate to the bus stop—autopilot does that for you. But autopilot also snags that last sweet left by the coffee machine, skips the gym and snaps at a loved one. Learning how to re-engineer an autopilot routine to your advantage is the key to sustainable self-improvement.

Woman having a sweet
Autopilot snags that last sweet left by the coffee machine, skips the gym and snaps at a loved one

Autopilot’s genius is its very mindlessness. Its quiet efficiency ensures that you have adequate mental capacity to meet challenges in professional and personal life. The precious commodity we call willpower is widely misunderstood to be a facet of personality, and we often accuse ourselves of being weak in character when we fail to keep our resolutions. But willpower is actually a neurological function, part of a limited pool of mental resources that also includes decision-making and active initiative. Whenever you exercise willpower, make decisions, or initiate action you are making debits against this scarce resource.

Reforming autopilot means shifting behaviours that are operating mindlessly in the background to the foreground where they require conscious effort. The grander your personal makeover plan, the more behaviours you must move from mindless to mindful, from easy to effortful. Most New Year’s resolutions are so ambitious that they are a virtual declaration of war on autopilot. Dozens of behaviours you would normally pay no attention to must now be consciously managed. The effort of enforcing all this behaviour change is emotionally stressful and mentally expensive. This is why over 90 per cent of New Year’s resolutions end in defeat—willpower is generally no match for autopilot.

But once you understand the dynamics governing personal change, you can leverage them to your advantage. By narrowly targeting a behavioural shift, you can conserve enough willpower to sustain your new routine until it becomes habit. That new behaviour will support you for a lifetime with hardly a conscious thought once it works itself into autopilot. The genius of a microresolution is that it creates mindfulness around a behaviour pattern in order for that behaviour to ultimately become mindless autopilot.

Learning how to re-engineer an autopilot routine to your advantage is the key to sustainable self-improvement

The rules of microresolutions

So, what’s the first step in making a microresolution? Begin by examining a routine in an area of your life that you’d like to improve and zero in on a single behaviour change that you believe will have an impact and be sustainable. Then craft your microresolution according to the rules below, and off you go!

Rule 1 – Don’t make resolutions you can’t keep — A microresolution is easy

A microresolution is a resolution you absolutely have the power to keep—a no excuses resolution. Resist that fatal impulse to go for broke and stretch your commitment to the breaking point; instead focus your microresolution on a reasonable behavioural change you are sure you can sustain.

Let’s take the general goal to be fit as a starting point. If you decide that a good way to increase your fitness level is by walking more and you don’t walk much now, suddenly resolving to walk to work every day wouldn’t be reasonable or realistic. Instead, commit to walking just one day [or walking half the way, or parking your car in the furthest reaches of the lot]. Your microresolution should represent a small change to your routine as it exists today, rather than what you hope your routine will become tomorrow. Your aim should be to master a simple behavioural change that will improve your fitness at the margin.

Feel like walking more than one day this week? Go ahead! A microresolution doesn’t limit what you may do, only what you commit to do. I started out with a microresolution to walk one day a week and now I walk every single day unless something major intervenes. Walking has now become my preference, but I began by forcing myself to walk just once a week. Had I begun with a resolution to walk every day, I would have failed.

One striking example of a limited resolution with big results came from Greta, who was one of the many friends and colleagues who contributed their microresolution success stories to Small Move, Big Change. Greta was a hard worker, very skilled and conscientious, but if she had to work late, was under pressure, had to pick up the slack for an absent employee, or had to miss lunch, she complained about it. Greta wasn’t a person of ill will; her complaints were mostly a misguided attempt to create a kind of camaraderie among co-workers by blowing off steam together.

Your aim should be to master a simple behavioural change that will improve your fitness at the margin

After Greta received feedback that she wasn’t being promoted to a more senior spot because her negative attitude wasn’t right for a leadership position, Greta was shocked. Her first impulse was to feel that she had been unfairly treated, but looking back over her work history, she could see a pattern in her attitude and behaviour and she set about creating a microresolution that would limit her lifelong habit of complaining. Mindful of Rule #1, Greta pledged not to be the first to complain about a work issue, a resolution limited enough that she thought she could maintain it. The very first day after making her resolution, something happened at the office that Greta thought would surely spark complaint. Abiding by her resolution, Greta made no comment and instead waited eagerly for someone else to bitch. She recalls, “I thought to myself, ‘Here it comes, here it comes—wait for it’ and nothing happened. No one said a thing.” It was days before anyone voiced a mild complaint on a different topic. “It was me,” Greta said, “I never realised that I was at the core of the complaining; it seemed to be a shared thing. But when I stopped taking the lead, most of it died off.”

The key to Greta’s success was limiting her resolution; had she pledged never to complain again, she would have failed. By resolving merely “not to be the first” to complain at work, she gave herself a chance to experience a slight difference in behaviour, rather than taking on a complete change of personality. And her targeted resolution turned out to be more revealing than she could have ever anticipated. Four years after her resolution Greta is not complaint-free, but she tells me that, more and more, she sees the glass as half full, rather than half empty, and recently bemoaned the fact that she now works with someone who is a non-stop complainer.

In making your resolution, expect that what you think is easy may turn out to be harder than you think. Any change to autopilot causes stress and a strong impulse to revert to comfortable routines. At this critical moment of taking on your very first microresolution, don’t overreach—prove to yourself that you can succeed by keeping your microresolution limited, reasonable and easy.

A microresolution doesn’t limit what you may do, only what you commit to do

Rule 2 – A Microresolution is an explicit and measurable action

Man walking on the road to office
“Walking to work once a week” is reasonable and limited but it’s not explicit. Specify which day are you going to walk to work

A microresolution is something you commit to do, not something you commit to be. The action of your resolution should be absolute, explicit, and measurable. Resolutions “to exercise more,” “to snack less,” or “to be nicer to my partner” are worthless. These are abstract goals, not actions, and they can’t be measured in real-time. A measurable microresolution is a pledge to take a specific action in a specific circumstance.

Let’s return to walk to work one day a week. Walking one day is reasonable and limited according to Rule #1, but it’s not explicit. Exactly which day are you going to walk to work? Unless a specific day and time are part of your resolution, you’re going to have to decide every day whether or not today is micoresolution day. Got up a bit late? Okay, walk tomorrow. Raining unexpectedly? Okay, walk tomorrow. Stayed up late and feeling weary? Okay, walk tomorrow. This is how we bargain ourselves out of our resolutions, constantly deferring or reformulating our commitments until they dissolve entirely. Every one of these bargaining sessions draws on decision-making, a debit against that scarce mental resource pool that includes the willpower you need to effect change. Making it up as you go along is mentally exhausting—just pick a day and time and stick to it. The magic of this rigour is that you’ll find yourself managing obstacles out of your way rather than looking to excuse yourself. If today’s the day, then today’s the day!

Not every microresolution is cued by a day or time. If you’re working on not being defensive, for example, and you’ve decided to respond to unwanted feedback by saying, “I appreciate you taking the time to tell me this, I’m going to give it some thought,” the cue for your resolution could come at you at any time. And if you are a highly defensive person, you’ll find you have too many cues to process. So be selective in identifying your cue, perhaps narrowing your resolution to respond only to a cue from a parent, a partner, or a boss. If you practise your response relentlessly in one circumstance, over time you’ll find yourself less defensive in every circumstance, but keep your focus tight when you first begin.

A microresolution is something you commit to do, not something you commit to be

Rule 3: A Microresolution pays off upfront

Coat rack
Instead of dropping your coat on the bed, resolve to hang it up as soon you take it off

One of the self-defeating aspects of the New Year’s resolution is that it is generally a someday proposition. When you resolve at the New Year “to be organised,” each day that you’re not absolutely organised you’re failing, so your resolution’s payoff is projected into the future— you will be organised, someday. But constantly deprecating what can be realistically achieved today in favour of a fantasy tomorrow only cheats you out of the progress you could make today. A microresolution is focused on a clear benefit that can take root today.

What is the immediate reward of a microresolution not to say I told you so to your partner? Well, if telling your partner I told you so creates friction, then it stands to reason that if you manage to refrain from crowing over your petty victory, you will eliminate that friction. Will it fix everything that is wrong with your relationship? Probably not, but it will deliver a real benefit the very first time you resist the impulse to score points at your partner’s expense.

Likewise, a resolution to hang up my coat when I come home delivers its benefit as soon as the action is complete—your coat is in the closet rather than rebuking you from a chair. Are there longer-term benefits to putting your coat away as soon as you come home? Absolutely! After many weeks of immediately putting your coat in the closet, you might find yourself hanging up your work clothes instead of dropping them onto the bedroom chair, because your coat routine has established a pattern in autopilot that is now organising other behaviours. It might even occur to you that a paper is as easily filed as added to a pile. But when you embark on your microresolution, your focus should be on the immediate benefit you’re going to receive, rather than anticipating rewards in the future.

Rule 4: A Microresolution is personal

Public gathering
Microresolutions need to be personal to be effective. One-size-fits-all resolutions don’t work because everyone is unique

A microresolution succeeds because it is designed explicitly by you and for you, based on a personal routine you practise today. One-size-fits-all resolutions such as to be on time ultimately break down into a set of behavioural changes specific to an individual. Are you late because you can’t find your keys? Transit card or gas tank empty? Did your kid forget to print out his homework until the last minute? Missing a button on your shirt? Can’t find directions to your first appointment of day? Each person who struggles with morning lateness will make different microresolutions based on their personal behaviour. Fixing a personal routine is very like debugging a computer program—you need to analyse where the routine is failing to perform and then target behavioural bugs until it runs smoothly.

Brian and Dorrie, parents and academics, were to put it delicately, neatness challenged. Each had their own study, but their studies were so full of books and papers that both often worked in the living and room. At any given moment, books, papers, and laptops littered the couch and coffee table, briefcases were splayed open on the floor, and piles of books mixed with newspapers and colouring books on the floor and side tables. Hosting any social event at home meant a major cleanup, and drop-in visitors provoked scrambling and apologies.

Brian and Dorrie’s first neatness microresolution was a joint one, aimed strictly at containment: zero tolerance for briefcases, books and papers left in the living room. It was okay to read and study in the shared space, but as soon as work was finished or interrupted, the books and papers had to be put back into the studies. This rule was strictly enforced even if the interruption was dinner and study was going to resume afterwards. Dorrie and Brian’s daughter also had to return toys and colouring books to her bedroom as soon as she left the living room. While the studies and bedrooms remained messy, the living room became an oasis of order in an otherwise chaotic household. Best of all, Dorrie and Brian were able to invite people over spontaneously without fear that a guest would have to navigate a minefield of books and toys or get speared by a pair of child’s scissors left on the couch. Unlike the popular resolution, “to keep the house neat,” that fails for most of us, Dorrie and Brian’s microresolution succeeded because it was designed to work for their lifestyle and habits.

A microresolution succeeds because it is designed explicitly by you and for you, based on a personal routine you practise today

It’s amazing what you learn about yourself when you disrupt an autopilot routine. A recent microresolution of mine was to reread my email prior to sending if I was disagreeing with anyone on the thread. I discovered through this microresolution that the dashed-off emails I had thought were tempered and respectful sounded curt or dismissive when I reread them. Making one or two simple changes—such as asking a question rather than making a statement, or saying “we” instead of “I”—made a big difference in the tone of the message and people’s subsequent willingness to engage. My experience with the email resolution made me more aware in general of how a well-intended communication can go awry when one is under pressure. This change in behaviour reinforced for me how every microresolution is an adventure in self-discovery.

How many microresolutions should I make at once?

To ensure success every time you commit to self-improvement, make no more than two microresolutions at a time and keep them for four to six weeks before moving on to new ones. Your microresolution won’t be true autopilot by then [that will take months], but it should feel pretty solid before you queue up the next one. Some microresolutions take hold more slowly because they are modifying a behaviour with very deep roots.

My microresolution to savour my food and drink [reframed from my yucky initial resolution to chew my food slowly] took many weeks, but it created an eating mindfulness in me that proved profound and also exposed my unconscious autopilot attitude that I must “finish first” even when it was counterproductive. Stick with your resolutions until they stick, don’t be in a rush to move on too quickly—practice makes permanent. If you make microresolutions two at a time and keep them for an average of five weeks before taking on new ones, you’ll make 20 permanent behavioural changes a year, and that’s huge.

Stick with your resolutions until they stick, don’t be in a rush to move on too quickly—practice makes permanent

The Magic Rose Geranium

There’s a children’s story called “The Magic Rose Geranium” which was a great favourite of mine as a child; my mother bought it to keep me occupied on a trip to the supermarket. It’s the story of a woman who lives in a cluttered, shabby house with an unkempt yard. The woman is depressed by her surroundings but when she looks around at all there is to do, she feels overwhelmed and never makes a start. One day a friend comes to visit and makes her a gift of a rose geranium plant. The plant looks so bright and cheerful on the kitchen table that it highlights the table’s poor appearance—so the woman paints it. The smart coat of paint on her table sets in relief the stained rug underneath it—so the woman cleans it. Now the woman sees that the centre of the kitchen looks spiffy, but that the cupboards are looming dingily—so she scrubs them clean, and so it goes, until the entire house, yard, and the woman herself are transformed from shabby to ship-shape.

When the woman’s friend comes to visit again, she is shocked by the transformation she encounters and asks her friend what happened. “It’s all due to that magic rose geranium you gifted me!” That’s exactly how microresolutions work. Successfully building a new behaviour creates momentum, can-do energy, and fresh inspiration until you find yourself in a state of continuous self-improvement.

Small is powerful in the modern era

We live in the age of the small and powerful, where micro computer chips, tablets, iPods, smart phones and apps drive productivity at work and at home. Micro-financing is eliminating poverty one family at a time. Nanotechnology is revolutionising medicine. Critical communications arrive in 140-character tweets, hitting global distribution lists in microseconds. These tools are targeted, designed to fill a specific need exactly and deliver value immediately. So it is with microresolutions—each is designed to hit a specific personal-improvement target exactly and deliver benefits immediately.

The fireworks of New Year’s fizzle out, but your season of beginnings is whenever you start afresh. Plant just one small seed of change and discover the difference it can make today, and for many seasons to come.


A version of this was first published in the June 2015 issue of Complete Wellbeing.
Caroline Arnold
Caroline Arnold is the author of Small Move, Big Change: Using Microresolutions to Transform Your Life Permanently [Viking, 2014] and an international speaker on personal change. She is an advisor to YOU-App, which motivates users to perform daily micro-actions that lead to long-term self-improvement. She is also a MD in the Technology Division of Gold.


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