How Small Changes Can Lead To Big Gains

Mark Sagor

think-small-imageWhen you improve a little each day, eventually big things occur. When you improve conditioning a little each day, eventually you have a big improvement in conditioning. Not tomorrow, not the next day, but eventually a big gain is made. Don’t look for the big, quick improvement. Seek the small improvement one day at a time. That’s the only way it happens- and when it happens, it lasts.” John Wooden, UCLA basketball coach with 10 NCAA championships.

Anyone who has tried to change a well established pattern of behavior knows that motivation can be a fickle and unreliable partner and habit can be a tenacious adversary. We may start off brimming with energy, making impressive progress on our goals, and then our motivation mysteriously wanes and we find ourselves watching another episode of “Law & Order” and the only thing we are making progress on is some leftover pizza.

The inevitable and unpredictable oscillations between high and low levels of motivation can be especially discouraging if we are trying to make the kind of changes that lead to improved health. Successfully changing eating, activity or smoking behaviors requires steady and sustained effort and the vagaries of motivation, and the persistence of habit, frequently derail the process.

So if you can’t rely on motivation to power your progress toward achieving your health goals what can you do? The answer is as powerful as it is counterintuitive: to make big gains you should start by thinking small.

Let me give you an example taken from the pioneering work of Dr. Robert Maurer (I highly recommend his book One Small Step Can Change Your Life). He talks about Julie, a divorced mother of two seeking help at the UCLA medical center for high blood pressure and fatigue. She was 30 pounds overweight, feeling highly stressed by her job, finances and the demands of single parenting and at high risk for diabetes, heart disease and depression.

Dr. Maurer knew there was a proven solution available to help Julie: regular physical exercise would improve nearly all of her health problems and give her more energy to contend with her challenging life. But Dr. Maurer also knew, from long clinical experience that if he told her she needed to exercise 30 minutes a day she would both feel misunderstood (“I don’t have 30 extra minutes in my day to exercise!”) and guilty.

So Dr. Maurer took a different approach. Knowing that Julie’s one personal break in a full day of work and parenting responsibilities was the half hour of TV watching Julie allowed herself after putting the children to bed, he said: “How about if you just march in place in front of the television, each day, for one minute?”

When Julie returned for her follow up visit she told Dr. Maurer that she had indeed marched in front of the TV each night. Dr. Maurer was well aware that Julie wasn’t going to change her health status significantly with just one daily minute of low intensity exercise. Yet the success that she experienced had subtly shifted her attitude and she was eager to learn what other small improvements she could make.

Within a few months Julie’s resistance and pessimism towards a fitness program had completely dissolved as a result of her building an exercise habit minute by minute. She began looking at her life through a different lens. She began looking to capture every possible opportunity for physical activity, like choosing the stairs instead of the elevator or parking a little farther away at work.

Think about it. What may seem like an embarrassingly trivial change at first might be the gateway to big gains down the road.