The Impact of Small Change

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.

Woman doing jumping jacks

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.

accumulating limestone in caves

***

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?

32 thoughts on “The Impact of Small Change”

  1. I’m with you 100% on this, Seana. It is the small steps we do each day that add up to real, long-lasting change. It was about a year ago that I started taking yoga classes. With the pandemic, the studio went virtual. The reduced travel time and shorter classes enabled me to take more classes each week. The benefits are unmistakable. I rarely have back pain, and I’m more flexible, my breathing has improved, and I feel more energetic. Also, my instructor teaches in an inspirational and philosophical way, which I love. The “small choice” to take a yoga class has made an enormous difference in my life.

    1. I love yoga too, Linda. It really does make you feel terrific. I had a similar “small decision” start that practice with a friend. We are still doing it together after 18 years, and even though she has moved away, we do it together virtually twice a week!

  2. What great advice and I do this every morning as I choose to get up about an hour before my girls and get my day started to clear out emails and just get a jump on my workday so that I am more organized to start my day off in all honesty. That extra hour just seems to make all the difference. So, couldn’t agree more with your assessment if I tried.

    1. Yes, if you are getting enough sleep and can get up before the children, it does set your day off on a positive track. I think you just feel a bit more in control, and you get to spend some time with yourself and your own thoughts & priorities. Such a neat small step that has made a world of difference!

  3. The premise of small change is what my practice focuses on for clients. I encourage clients to choose a small easy change. This way they can see and feel the difference with little effort. The examples here are remarkable and show the value without a doubt. Thank you for sharing this visual changes.

    1. Small change is so powerful. I love that this is the focus for your ADHD clients. Being able to see your own progress, even if it is small, is so motivating!

  4. I agree with everything you said and it’s very much how I manage my life. At least it’s how I motivate myself to get things done with “Snippets of time, and the things we do with them, add up.”
    After not having exercised for too long, I decided to make a change during our lockdown. I started to take virtual exercise classes but only for 20 minutes at a time. That was doable. Then I took the 20 minute classes three times a day until I took longer classes at a time. I didn’t miss a day and I’m still taking the classes. As a matter of fact, I’m about to head into my favorite one of the week, every Monday, the total body conditioning class!

    1. You go, girl! Way to make great use of this crazy year. My husband did the same. He suddenly didn’t have to travel every day, and he has been super faithful with working out. I think he’s lost almost 20 pounds, which is crazy because he wasn’t really overweight at all to begin with. I told him how great he looks this morning, which only helps, right?

  5. This sounds small which I suppose is the point here, but I did one of those 30 day plank challenges. The consistency and routine of it made it so I went from doing like.. 10 seconds.. to over two minutes.
    Of course, this wasn’t recent! I don’t do planks pregnant. Although I will again!
    Tamara recently posted…I’m Still StandingMy Profile

    1. I love something like a plank challenge. It feels “doable,” not so intimidating as heading to the gym for a major workout. Great and gentle way to get back in shape after the baby comes 🙂

  6. I recently received a copy of the book “Making Websites Win.” I was exciting to receive it because I don’t really have formal training in this area, and it’s a beautiful hard cover book in a cardboard sleeve. However, I couldn’t figure out how I would ever get through it, since I do most of my reading before going to sleep, not ideal for learning (or for sleeping!). So I’ve decided to free up 15 minutes a day to read it until it’s done. Thanks for the encouragement!
    Janet Barclay recently posted…Is your website giving you strong results?My Profile

    1. I set aside some time for reading each day a couple of years back. It is a short period, but because I have that time slot set aside, I don’t feel guilty. I agree on the night time reading. For me, that is generally something easy!

  7. I agree entirely! Thank you for the examples. I’m going to share this on social media!

    I believe that small tasks with commitment each day are essential to get things done. If one never organized before, starting with 15-20 minutes a day works wonders to help get into the decluttering mindset. I have several examples of areas to declutter that only take 20 minutes on my blog to help people get started. =)
    Sabrina Quairoli recently posted…12 Essential Container Types For Your Next Organizing ProjectsMy Profile

  8. I am in full agreement that small steps can make big changes and that everything we do doesn’t have to be a big accomplishment. I have decided that if what I’m doing is something that needs to be done no matter how small, that I am being productive. It might not be on my priority list for the day but it is still an accomplishment. I have adopted many of your suggestions and most of them actually save time and effort. Little things do mean a lot as a song title of many years ago suggests.

    1. Funny how a song can stick in our heads and then remind us of a truth years later. Little things really do matter! I’m so glad that my tips are having save time and effort – that means a lot to me:)

  9. excellent blog!! great points and great advice for little steps making BIG changes!! As a widow taking baby steps has helped me so much in moving forward in everything I do!! So I do “get: this!! Thank you!

    1. Working through grief and adjustment after loss of a spouse is definitely the environment in which small steps make all the difference. Just to get through a day, make a tough decision, find a way to smile…if we can do these things, we are winning!

  10. I’ve started planking again! It takes less than a minute and I can do it in my pajamas, yet I rarely made time to strengthen my core. Now that my family is all home between work and remote school, my youngest child has made it a point to engage all of us in some early morning exercise. Each week we add a few more seconds to the plank. I’m hoping to hit a minute by the end of the year. I’ve done it before and I can do it again!

    1. You go, girl! Planking is such great exercise, and it really takes so little time. I can’t wait to hear you tell me you hit the minute. That will be so rewarding:)

  11. I think small changes are the way to go for lasting change. It helps me to attach a new habit to an already existing one. Like when I started taking vitamins I put them next to my coffee station so I remember to take them in the morning. If I ever get a prescription I have to leave it with my vitamins so I remember to take it.

    1. I have to put a new prescription out as well. Tying the taking of meds to an existing habit (like brushing teeth) has been very helpful. The good news is, small steps don’t feel so hard, and before you know it, you are ready for another!

  12. Love this! This is such an important principle. I love the way you went from broad to specific in your examples. Simple behaviors, consistently practiced, are what make the difference between an orderly home and a cluttered one.

    1. I feel we can all find one step that is small enough to be “doable.” I got myself thinking as I wrote this post about what I might want to do next!

  13. This post reminds me of the adage; Rome wasn’t built in a day. Your example of meditation struck a note with me as I started a meditation practice this summer (to help put in a better mindset with the darn heat – you know me 😉 ) I’m only doing it a few minutes a day, but it has helped!

    1. I am giving you big points for beginning with the meditation. A few minutes a day is really all you need, and it does help so much! Hopefully the weather now is more appealing to you. As you know, I’m crying as the days turns crisp. At least one of us happy all year long:)

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