Well-Being//

Microsteps: The Big Idea That’s Too Small to Fail

The science is in: By making very small changes, you have the power to change your life.

Courtesy of shutter_m / Getty Images
Courtesy of shutter_m / Getty Images

Thrive Global’s mission is to end the epidemic of stress and burnout by changing the way we work and live. Yes, that’s a big, ambitious goal, but there’s a roadmap for us all to get there. To borrow from the coda of another long journey, it’s less about giant leaps and more about small steps. We call these Microsteps, and they’re the foundation of our behavior change platform. They’re small, incremental, science-backed actions we can take that will have both immediate and long-lasting benefits to the way we live our lives.

Thrive Global is all about going upstream — that is, identifying and addressing stress triggers before they become symptoms. And the further upstream we go, the more dramatically we can change outcomes with even very small changes. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 75 percent of our health care spending goes toward the treatment of conditions that can be prevented, like heart disease and diabetes. When you include mental health, it goes up to 90 percent.

Clearly, our culture’s focus on downstream harm reduction isn’t just inadequate — it’s a failure. But by going upstream, it’s possible to truly change outcomes by focusing not just on the root causes of chronic and stress related illnesses, but also on how well-being enhances performance.

So, the question is, how do we change those lifestyle factors? The only way is by creating good new habits. We are, as the saying goes, creatures of habit. According to a study from Duke University, around 45 percent of our everyday actions are made up of habits. Our habits, then, are a fundamental reflection of who we are. As my compatriot Aristotle put it, “Habit’s but a long practice,” which “becomes men’s nature in the end.”

So our lifestyle is, in essence, just the sum total of our habits. Change your habits and you quite literally change your life. But as most people have learned, unlearning bad habits and learning new ones is challenging. Books on changing habits are perennial bestsellers — and yet, as a study from the University of Scranton found, 92 percent of us fail to keep our New Year’s resolutions. Another found that 80 percent of us have already failed by the second week of February.

That’s because most of us start off too big. We’re deciding to launch into a whole new lifestyle all at once. Or we think we’re just going to get there by the sheer exercise of willpower. But that ignores the science of how willpower works. Roy F. Baumeister, the leading expert in the subject, is a professor of psychology at Florida State University and the co-author, with John Tierney, of “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.” What his work has revealed is that willpower isn’t a fixed, genetic trait — it’s a muscle, and one that can be strengthened.

As a resource that fluctuates, willpower can also be depleted, like when we’re tired or sleep-deprived or even when we’re experiencing “decision fatigue.” But it’s not just about how much of this resource we have at any given moment, it’s about how we spend it. What Baumeister’s work has shown is that people who are living healthy lives aren’t using their willpower to resist each temptation as it comes along. Rather, they’re using that willpower proactively, to create healthy habits. That’s the way to scale the usefulness of our willpower. “Until recently, it was standard to think of self-control in terms of heroic single feats of willpower, such as for resisting a strong temptation,” he writes. “But much of the new evidence suggests that self-control is most effective when it operates through habits. People use their self-control to break bad habits and establish good ones, and then life can run smoothly and successfully, with low levels of stress, regret, and guilt.” As he writes, “willpower fluctuates,” but habits don’t — that’s their defining trait.

And the best way to convert our willpower into habits is by starting small. It’s a common element to every successful behavior change program. “Make it easy” is how James Clear, author of Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones,” puts it. “The central idea is to create an environment where doing the right thing is as easy as possible,” he writes. “Much of the battle of building better habits comes down to finding ways to reduce the friction associated with our good habits.”

For B.J. Fogg, a behavior change researcher and the director of the Persuasive Tech Lab at Stanford University, it’s about making the “minimum viable effort” — going as small as you can. “To create a new habit, you must first simplify the behavior,” he says. “Make it tiny, even ridiculous. A good tiny behavior is easy to do — and fast.”

The benefit of even one small win goes beyond just the new healthy behavior you’ve created — it actually builds that willpower muscle to create even more wins and good habits. “The more you succeed, the more capable you get at succeeding in the future,” Fogg says. “So you don’t start with the hardest behaviors first, you start with the ones you want to do and you can do and you persist.”

And this approach is backed up by science. In one study, Baumeister had participants make minor improvements to their posture, telling them to remember to sit or stand up straight throughout the day. A few weeks later, this group scored higher on self-control exercises than a control group — even on tests that didn’t have anything to do with posture. In another study, he had participants make minor improvements to their speech, like using full names instead of nicknames, or not cursing. The results? “These too improved self-control on lab tests that had nothing to do with speaking styles,” he writes. “The self-control ‘muscle’ is pretty much the same for all the many different things self-control is used for. Therefore, you can strengthen your self-control with any sort of exercise, and its beneficial effects will be found in other, unrelated domains.”

Which brings us back to Microsteps, the building blocks of habits. Making even very small changes in our trajectory can, over time, lead us to a very different destination. By making our Microsteps too small to fail, we can help you make those first, small changes on which you can begin to build a new and healthier way of living and working. There’s nothing wrong with aiming big — just help yourself by starting small. Our mission is to unlock your talent and your creativity and your potential. And we’ll get there together, one Microstep at a time.

To start you off, here are 10 of my favorite Microsteps in a variety of domains — and you’ll see how they’re all interconnected.

For better sleep:

Pick a time at night when you turn off your devices — and gently escort them out of your bedroom!

Our phones are repositories of everything we need to put away to allow us to sleep our to-do lists, our inboxes, multiple projects, and problems. Disconnecting from the digital world will help you sleep better, deeply recharge, and reconnect to your wisdom and creativity.

Set an alarm for 30 minutes before your bedtime.

When you think of sleep as an actual appointment, you’re much more likely to grant it the time it deserves. Setting an alarm reminds you that if you’re going to get to bed on time, you need to start wrapping things up.

For better nutrition:

Sit down when you eat, even for a few minutes.

Eating on the run can make us feel like we’re being productive or saving time. But mindless eating while we are multitasking can lead us to consume more calories and is more likely to lead to bloating and indigestion. Instead, make it a meal — you’ll be less tempted to snack afterward.

For more movement:

For your next one-on-one, suggest a walking meeting.

Instead of meeting in a stale conference room, walk side by side with a colleague. You’ll be less likely to peek at your devices, and the movement will get the creative, problem-solving juices flowing.

For more focus:

Turn off all your notifications, except those from people who might need to get your attention.

The more our phone buzzes at us, the more it conditions us to release cortisol, “the stress hormone.” Adjust your settings so that you get notifications only from people important to you.

For a healthier relationship with technology:

Do an audit of your phone’s home screen to reduce time-sapping distractions.

Take just a few minutes to determine which apps you really need to access. Keep only “tools” that add value — not apps designed to consume more of your attention.

To be more creative:

Take a planned detour.

Travel is a great way to take you out of your comfort zone, but you don’t need to go around the world or even leave town to stimulate your mind in creative ways. Find an everyday opportunity, like turning down an unfamiliar sidestreet, to expose yourself to new people, sights, and sensations.

To prioritize your time more productively:

Block time on your calendar to manage your email.

Studies show that it takes an average of 25 minutes to refocus after being interrupted, so setting aside time for email can help you avoid constant inbox distractions.

To help integrate work and life:

Declare an end to the day, even if you haven’t completed your to-do list.

Effectively prioritizing means being comfortable with incompletions. Once you’ve handled the day’s essential priorities, recognize that in any interesting job it’s almost impossible to do all you could have done in any one day. By taking the time to recharge, you’ll return to work the next day ready to seize opportunities.

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