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!

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A version of this was first published in the June 2015 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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