Back when my children were young, I was talking with a personal trainer at a social event. I was bemoaning my lack of time to exercise. “I only have about ten minutes a day to myself.” The personal trainer’s response surprised me. She said, “Actually, ten minutes is a lot. If you worked out ten minutes every single day, you could get great results.” We often think we have to take great leaps for things to improve, but as it turns out, small choices – made consistently day after day – are the ones that can have the biggest impact.
Let me share a few illustrations.
First let’s imagine two friends are walking side by side. Let’s assume the length of their strides is the same, around two feet, and that they take about 1 step every 2 seconds. The blue friend walks straight forward along a line. The red friend walks at an angle of about 5˚ to the left. At first, the friends are still quite close. However, with each step, the friends find themselves further apart. After a little more than three minutes and 100 steps, the friends are about 17 ½ feet apart. If they carry on another 100 steps, for a total of 400 feet, they will find themselves almost 35 feet apart. A small turn takes the red friend in what turns out to be a totally different place.
Let’s look at another example.
A woman decides to do jumping jacks each day to improve her strength and cardiovascular health. At first, she can only do 25 jumping jacks at a time. She decides to do these every day, adding only 5 jumping jacks a week. By the end of the year, after 52 weeks, she can do 260 jumping jacks at one time. The additional five jumping jacks per week felt insignificant in the moment, but by adding this small amount, she found herself able to do nine times as many as she could at the beginning of the year.
Here is an example from nature.
Caves are typically made of limestone. When rain or snow falls outside and above the cave, it often works its way down into the cave through cracks and crevices in the rock. As the water trickles down, it dissolves a mineral in the limestone called calcite. The microscopic dissolved minerals are carried along until eventually the dripping water emerges on the ceiling of the cave. At this point, the water evaporates, leaving behind tiny deposits of calcite. The amount is so small it can’t be seen. However, over thousands of years, these deposits build up and form large, bony-looking appendages known as stalactites. If there is too much water to evaporate, the extra liquid drops to the floor of the cave, leaving similar deposits which are known as stalagmites. It takes time, but these teeny deposits eventually build up into impressive structures.
It is natural to think that we need a complete overhaul to change our lives. This is because the effects of our “big” decisions tend to be dramatic, quick, and easy to identify. For instance, we take the new job and rapidly find ourselves with both a longer commute and a larger paycheck. Or, we spend the weekend cleaning out the garage and after two days see a markedly improved space. In contrast, it often requires a longer period of time for us to fully appreciate the impact of small, but consistent, choices. As a result, we tend to undervalue their significance. We say, “doing X, Y, or Z won’t make a big enough difference to be worthwhile.” In reality, it tends to be small, daily habits and disciplines that have the biggest impact.
Why is this the case? Snippets of time, and the things we do with them, add up! For instance, spending as little as 5 minutes per day meditating equates to 35 minutes per week, and 1,820 minutes (or 30+hours) per year. This is true for both positive and negative habits. Smoking one pack of cigarettes (or 20) per day means 140 cigarettes per week or 7,280 cigarettes per year.
Small, consistent choices also have power because they turn into habits. When we make “new” decisions, we employ the frontal cortex of our brain. This requires energy and focus. Remember back to when you were learning to drive. It required great concentration to start the car, shift into reverse, and then slowly back down the driveway without hitting the nearby wall and trees. However, once a skill is achieved (and a habit is a skill!), the brain efficiently takes our acquired “how to” knowledge and shifts it back to the basal ganglia of our brain. This way, we don’t need to stop, focus, and exert energy over and over again. As long as we do things the same way, the brain shifts to “auto-pilot” and takes care of it. If you’ve been driving awhile, you are probably able to back down the driveway while changing the radio station and talking to your children in the back seat. This is an amazing characteristic of the human brain, and one that helps us be more and more efficient as we progress through life. [It also explains why breaking a habit is so challenging… habits are well settled into our brains.]
All this to say, we should not belittle or underestimate the power of small steps.
We shouldn’t think, “Well, I can’t go to the gym every day so I might as well accept that I’m going to be a puffy slug for the rest of my life.” Instead, we can choose to take one small step toward our goal and allocate ten minutes each morning to basic calisthenics.
We shouldn’t say, “I would need a whole week to clean up this office, and I don’t have that much time, so I guess I’ll just have to learn to work in chaos.” A better option is to say, “I will go through one drawer/cabinet/pile in this office every week until I redeem this space.”
Few people have endless time and resources to pursue change. The good news is, we can choose to make repeated small strides toward our goal. When it comes to getting and staying organized, some great candidates include:
- Clearing your desk for five minutes before you finish work each day
- Spending a few minutes at the end of the day to plan what you will do tomorrow
- Spending an hour on Saturday morning walking around and putting things away that have been left out during the week
- Making the bed as soon as your feet hit the floor each morning
- Putting dirty clothes into a hamper when you take them off
- Putting your dishes into the dishwasher as soon as you are finished with them
- Setting aside a few minutes each week to file accumulated paperwork
- Clearing out one drawer each week
- Finding one thing each day to put into a donation’s bin
- Emptying the garbage from the car whenever you pump gas
- Deleting three photos whenever you find yourself waiting
- Retrieving and triaging the mail each day
- Hanging up your coat when you walk in the door
- Putting a timer on when you sit down to surf the internet.
The list is endless, so think about one aspect of your life that you would like to improve. It may involve your time, your space, or your belongings. Identify one small choice you could make, one manageable step you could repeatedly take, to get you going in the right direction. Then, go for it and stick with it. You can do this!
What small choice have you made in your life that has made a big difference?