“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
When it comes to making total life changes, less is more. We might think that improving ourselves means overhauling our lives, but according to productivity experts, you’re more likely to stick to your new habits if you take small steps and give yourself plenty of rewards along the way.
Sound too easy? That’s the point! Here are some tiny steps you can do today to maintain your positive habits and make total life changes.
Make it easy to achieve
Every week, I find myself in the same predicament: I vow to meal prep for the entire week and spend less money on Seamless. I have grand plans to go to the farmer’s market. I even follow food blogs on Instagram and promise myself I will re-create all of their gorgeous recipes. But by the time the Sunday rolls around, I barely have the energy to go out and buy food, let alone actually plan and prepare it.
Perhaps the problem is having too much ambition.
According to author and habit expert James Clear, the key to successfully sticking to a new habit is to: “Start with a behavior that is so small it seems easy and reasonable to do it each day.”
Here are some examples:
- New Habit: You want to run more.
- Tiny Step: Run for 5 minutes every day.
- New Habit: You want to read more.
- Tiny Step: Read 1 page every day.
- New Habit: You want to meal prep every week.
- Tiny step: Make breakfast at home.
- New Habit: You want to write every day.
- Tiny step: Write for 15 minutes a day.
- New Habit: You want to meditate.
- Tiny step: Meditate for 3 minutes a day.
- New Habit: You want to save money.
- Tiny step: Put $1 a day in a piggy bank, or transfer from checking to savings.
I know these examples may seem small or easy, but that just means you’re more likely to succeed.
The key to making total life changes is to make the habit so easy that you can do them until they become routine. It’s like brushing your teeth in the morning or checking your email — these are acts you do every day without even thinking about them. And once these habits become routine, you can push yourself to increase your running pace or writing pages, or move onto a new habit.
Also, these tiny actions add up over time. For example, say you want to write more because you want to finish a novel. So you start writing one page every single day. It doesn’t seem like much at first, but after two months, you will already have 60 pages!
If you start small, not only will you successfully maintain these habits, but you will finish big!
Visual and environmental cues
Another tiny step you can take that will end up having a big impact is to have strong visual and environmental cues, which remind you of your habit.
Let’s say you want to go to the gym before work, but you wake up and find yourself scrambling for your gym clothes, which makes you not only late for the gym, but now you’re late for work!
Solution: lay out your gym clothes and sneakers in the evening. Or place your gym bag by the front door. Or have a special section in your closet or room that’s just devoted to workout wear and accessories so you always know where to look.
Other environmental cues:
- Want to make healthy juices and smoothies? Leave your blender on your countertop so it’s easily accessible (instead of putting it in a hard-to-reach low cabinet).
- Have a book that you keep meaning to read? Place it on your coffee table. So instead of reaching for your phone, you’ll be reminded to grab your book instead.
- Want to cook more? Post recipes and grocery lists on the fridge so you know what to meal prep for the week.
- Want to start a journaling practice? Keep your journal by your bed so you can write in the morning or evening. Or keep it in your bag so you can jot down thoughts during commutes or lunch breaks.
Total life changes benefit from rewards
Another key component of maintaining new habits and making total life changes is to find immediate rewards.
The thing about pursuing good habits like writing or yoga is that we don’t see the rewards at first. Yes, we feel good about ourselves after a yoga class. But sometimes we need a reward just to get ready and prepare ourselves for a stressful commute to class.
So while yoga and writing have positive benefits in the long run, how do we experience those benefits in the short term?
Here are some ideas for immediate and motivating rewards:
- Treat yourself to a nice yoga bag or workout wear. Or treat yourself to a new music playlist. You’ll be rewarded for dressing up and heading to yoga class!
- Treat yourself to watching cute animal videos after you finish writing.
- Treat yourself to opening a new notebook or magazine after you finish meditating.
- If you love following lifestyle blogs on Instagram, treat yourself to scrolling through their feed after you tidy your room.
Starting a new habit doesn’t have to feel like homework. Habits are easier to achieve if we have motivating rewards — like when we were kids and how good it felt to get shiny gold stickers! In fact, if you want to buy yourself some shiny gold star stickers — you should go for it!
Focus on your identity, not your outcome
Starting a new habit implies that you have a desired outcome. You run every day because you want to run a 5k. Or you save money every day because you want to accrue $1000 for your emergency fund.
But another way to successfully maintain positive habits is to put the focus on developing your identity, rather than the results.
James Clear calls this an identity-based habit:
“Many people begin the process of changing their habits by focusing on what they want to achieve. This leads us to outcome-based habits. The alternative is to build identity-based habits. With this approach, we start by focusing on who we wish to become.”
In order to cultivate the identity-based habit, what you want to do is “decide what kind of person you want to be” and then “prove yourself with small wins.”
- Results-based habit: I want to read 100 books a year
- Identity-based habit: I want to be a more intelligent person
- Results-based habit: I want to run a marathon
- Identity-based habit: I want to be healthier
- Results-based habit: I want to grow my professional network to 100 people
- Identity-based habit: I want to be an expert in my field
Clear says that an identity-based habit is more motivating because it’s less about the pursuit of results and numbers, and more about developing your perception of yourself. Being the person you want to be is often far more motivating than achieving some outside goal.
And once you establish your identity-based habit, you can then achieve small wins by taking the small steps that we listed earlier in this article.
Remember: making total life changes takes time, practice, and most of all, patience. Don’t beat yourself up if you skip a day or fall back on old habits. Make sure to take small steps and remind yourself that this is all going to add up in the end.
Before you know it, you’ll have already reached a thousand miles. Don’t forget to reward yourself along the way.