My friend and I were sitting at a local coffee shop where he was giving me some bullshit excuses for not changing his habits. He gained some weight over the summer and it was very noticeable. Yet when we sat down for drinks, he ordered a beer.
— “What are you doing? I thought you wanted to lose weight.”
— “I do, man, but I have to make a plan first.”
— “What do you mean you need a plan? Just order something else. Start the change right now.”
He seemed confused. He looked down in shame, then slowly lifted his head up and uttered:
“So like… just today? Right now?”
However, there’s a big leap from “choosing a goal” and “completing the goal”. There are a bunch of steps in between. There is a lot of effort that needs to be put in. Plus, most of the time, we don’t even know what we’re supposed to do.
So we make plans. We schedule things. We fill out calendars, write down to-do lists, and organize our workspace. Sometimes, it’s necessary; most of the time, it’s just another form of procrastination. The hardest part of any task is starting it. Luckily, this can easily be fixed.
This obsession with “goals” is flawed in itself. Your goal shouldn’t be “read a book” or “lose ten pounds”. It should be “become a reader” or “eat healthier”. Goals can be completed. Good habits are something that should always remain a part of you.
Small Choice Leads to a Big Choice
Instead of doing something, anything, that pushes us towards our goal, we often get stuck in analyzing and planning.
We don’t want to start because “we don’t have a plan”, because the environment is “not right” or because you’re “not feeling it”. This is where the myth of motivation comes from, a sense that you need to feel hyped and motivated in order to get things done.
This approach can be applied to anything from completing your daily tasks, starting a company, or approaching strangers. It is a state known by the catchy name of analysis paralysis.
The choices you make accumulate over time until something big happens. You then look at that big thing and wonder — “Wow who could’ve predicted that?” — without realizing how all of the daily decisions you make impact your life as a whole.
Every time you plan instead of taking action, you make a choice. Over time, those choices define you as a person.
When you decide to change and become better, you put focus on big changes:
- Get a better job and earn a lot of money
- Get in a better shape and look great
- Go from insecure to confident af
In short, you try to go from one extreme to another extreme. I was the same way. As I detailed in my own path to change, I tried to go from an anxious, insecure, introverted, and unsocial guy to someone who was confident, had the highest self-esteem possible, looked great, and was liked by everybody.
Not only is this the wrong approach, it’s also a wrong goal.
So let’s see why this drastic approach is doomed to fail. By trying to make extreme changes to multiple components of your life and measuring ONLY the final outcome, you will inevitably become discouraged and give up.
Drastic changes require not only a lot of effort but a lot of time. On top of that, you can never know for sure exactly what to do. You can have a general sense of direction but you will still have to make a lot of changes along the way. Everybody does.
The solution becomes clear: You need to track small changes.
There is a popular saying in marketing/entrepreneurial world: “What gets measured, gets managed”. Focusing on improving small-level items will push you in the right direction. It will enable you to reach your goals faster and more efficiently.
The formula for implementing small changes goes like this:
- Focus on something SMALL
- Keep repeating it
- Get better over time
Pretty simple, right? Makes sense too. But let me show you just how easily this can be applied to a real-life example.
Stop planning. Start doing.
Let’s say that, like my friend, you want to get in shape.
Whether it’s bulking up or losing weight, it doesn’t matter. You have a goal. Now, how do you achieve that goal? You work out, let’s say, 12 times a month. Sounds scary. That’s almost half of the month. So let’s break it down to make it more digestible: 3 times per week. Shit, that’s still almost half of the week.
How about you do this instead: Focus on just ONE workout.
Focus on not missing your next workout and giving it your 100%. That’s it. Just one workout. Just 1/24 hours in one single day. Get to the gym and pay the membership. Find out where the equipment is. Ask people for help. But get in there and do your best ONCE.
Here’s the best part!
Now, repeat the same logic for the next workout. What happens? Your next workout is going to be a bit easier because you know your way around the gym. You’re going to be a bit better. Just a little bit better but still better. This makes you feel good. Next time, you become even better, because it’s even easier, so you decide to increase the weight just a little bit.
You look ridiculous… but you don’t care because you’re pushing more weight than you did last time. Also, since you don’t care, you’re building self-confidence along the way as well. Score!
Time after that, you increase the weight just a tiny bit more. At this rate, you are hitting your personal record every workout. Wow, that’s amazing! You’re improving in very, very small ways but they still matter. A month later, you have increased weight significantly. In two, four, six months, you will see significant changes and be closer to your overarching goal. And all it took… was focusing on one small thing at a time.
Small steps help you improve EVERY SINGLE TIME you do them!
Every single time you complete a task you need to do, it’s a win. The longer your streak, the longer your win. By the time you get to your final goal, it’s a HUGE win on top of all the little wins.
You’re winning left and right as if you’re goddamn Charlie Sheen.
Making Better Decisions Every Day
Now, you may be thinking to yourself:
“But Phil, all of this sounds great but it can’t really be that simple. It doesn’t apply to my own thing I’m struggling with.”
Well, that’s not true. It actually is that simple; but that doesn’t mean it is easy. But it is easier than the alternative. Any worthwhile change still requires effort and dedication. There are no shortcuts.
This approach only helps you actually get started instead of planning forever. It takes you out of your head and puts you into the real world. Just start. Do anything.
“But Phil, it still doesn’t apply to my own thing or a problem.”
I doubt that. This concept is not particularly new. Breaking things down into smaller pieces is a widely-used strategy for maximizing your efforts. Here are just a few examples of this:
- Micro-avoidance — This is a similar method that shows how avoiding small challenges in your daily life makes you scared and insecure. Embracing small challenges helps you tackle bigger challenges over time.
- The 1 Percent Rule — This concept is often proposed by bestselling author James Clear and explains how focusing on incremental daily changes makes you better overall.
- Clinical therapies — Most of the popular behavioral therapies, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, focus on gradual change and improvement over time.
In almost every single moment of your life, you are choosing. What to eat. Which website to visit. Whether to check your phone. Who to date. Which job to apply for. Whether to confront somebody or stay in silence.
Most of these choices are small and seemingly meaningless. But they accumulate over time. The video below is a great example of this cause-and-effect relationship of small choices:
The concept of small choices building up over time makes sense to pretty much everybody. It’s so simple and innate that it can be hard to argue against it.
Here are some examples of how you can use this:
- Go for a run just once. Forget about becoming a runner or getting running shoes or figuring out best practices. Get out and run just this once.
- Ask someone out just once. Forget about getting 100 matches or 100 phone numbers. Focus on just one.
- Do not give into your anxiety just once. Assume that everything is going to work out fine just this one time. See what happens.
Even better, here’s how you can combine this to develop multiple skills.
Let’s say you want to re-organize your life. You want to start waking up early, build a killer body, and develop your social skills. Phew, that sounds intimidating. So what do you do? Start small, then build on it.
Day 1: Get up at 6 am. That’s it.
Day 2: Get up at 6 am but try not to drink coffee. This will make it easier to fall asleep sooner.
Day 3: Get up at 6 am. You feel better because you got a good night’s sleep. Go to the gym just once. You feel tired after working out. Without coffee and after a workout, you feel much sleepier.
Day 4: Get up at 6 am. It’s not as big of a problem as on the first day. Drink more water instead of two cups of coffee. Limit yourself to only one cup.
Day 5: Get up at 6 am. It’s gym day again but you will do the same exercises as last time. It is much easier but you feel sleepy after the workout. In the shower, change the water from hot to lukewarm. Next time, you will make it colder; the colder it is, the more it wakes you up.
Day 6: Wake up at 6 am. Make plans for the weekend. Grab a drink with your friend. At the bar, you fear talking to strangers. So just this once, walk to someone and give them a compliment. “Nice shirt”. You turn around and walk back to your friend. It’s exciting. It’s scary. But you did it. Just this once.
Day 136: Not only is it not a problem to wake up at 6 am anymore, you love it. It makes you more productive and focused. You have gotten in great shape, can lift more, run more, and feel amazing. Cold showers after a workout give you a needed boost that has replaced copious amounts of coffee. Since you have talked to numerous people so far, you have no fear of talking so strangers anymore. In fact, you love meeting new people.
Each of these things can be hard and overwhelming on their own. So start small.
Wake up early once. Say “no” to someone once. Go to the gym once. Eat healthier once. Focus on just the once. Then focus on once again. Pretty soon, you will look back and be amazed at how far you’ve come in such a short timeframe.
You can’t change the past. You can’t make better decisions retroactively. But unlike movies often tell us, you don’t need a time machine to change the future. You just need to make a better decision — once.
Listen up: If you want a complete guide to changing your habits using this approach, I cannot recommend the book Atomic Habits enough. It’s simple to read but packed with life-changing advice.