Resolutions are a popular way to ring in the New Year with positivity and goals. However, few individuals actually maintain their New Year's resolutions. Research indicates that most individuals, as many as two-thirds, will quit their New Year's resolution within the first month (Dickson et al., 2021). Clearly, resolutions aren’t the most effective method for self-improvement. Instead of lofty goals and instant changes, perhaps small habits built over time can be a greater aid in goal accomplishment. In this Insight article, we explore how small habits can produce big changes that lead to greater growth and goal accomplishment. Join us as we discover the science behind habits, success, and growth.
“All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits.” -William James
Why choose small habits?
Small habits start a chain reaction
The video above provides a great example of the impact that seemingly small choices can have on big goals. The smallest domino in this video is only 5 millimeters tall and 1 millimeter thick. It’s so small it must be picked up with a pair of tweezers. Through a chain reaction involving only 13 dominos, this tiny domino is able to start the process of knocking down the largest domino that weighs over 100 lbs and is over 1 meter tall.
Small habits can have the same effect on our lives. By making small but intentional daily choices that support our goals, we can increase our chance of achieving larger more substantial goals. Researchers Shnayder‑Adams and Sekhar state that small habits or “micro-habits” can make “habit formation more manageable and sustainable, allowing small actions to compound over time and to strengthen your values and identity” (2021). Other researchers indicate that ”routines and beneficial habits largely explain high self-control people's success at goal pursuit” (Kokkoris & a Stavrova, 2021). Furthermore, researchers Galla and Duckworth propose that individuals with high levels of self-control are not more successful at goal attainment only because of their self-control, but also because of their “rely on beneficial habits” (2015). The small daily habits we instill in our lives can compound themselves, ultimately helping us achieve our most difficult challenges.
Small habits are easier to maintain
Small habits are easier to maintain than larger ones we might consider setting as New Year’s resolutions. While big goals are made in moments of great motivation, these moments of motivation can fade with time. A behavior scientist at Stanford University and author of “Tiny Habits,” states in an interview with Maria Godoy that, “our motivation won't always be high, and the way we get around that is to make the behavior really, really easy to do…” (2021). Small habits are easier to maintain than large long-term and broad goals because they take less motivation and immediate effort. By achieving these small milestones and slowly working our way towards larger milestones, we can take advantage of the momentum that small habits provide when looking to achieve our goals.
“Successful people are simply those with successful habits.” -Brian Tracy
Small habits are more rewarding
One of the reasons that small habits are easier to maintain is because they are more rewarding than large goals that are immediately integrated into schedules. Professor of Behavioural Addiction at Nottingham Trent University, Mark Griffiths, explains that “manageable short-term goals can be beneficial and more rewarding” than larger long-term goals such as New Year’s resolutions. Instead of holding out for the feelings of accomplishment that a long-term goal can bring, small habits integrate feelings of accomplishment into daily life.
“Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going.” -Jim Rohn
Examples of small habits with big results
Data and insight both point to the power of small habits that produce big results. But what do these small habits look like? There are many small changes that we can make in our lives that produce big results.
Consider the small habit of going on a 30-minute walk a day. Walking 30 minutes a day can “increase cardiovascular fitness, strengthen bones, reduce excess body fat, and boost muscle power and endurance. It can also reduce your risk of developing conditions such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, and some cancers” (BetterHealth, n.d.). Previously, we have discussed the importance of physical wellness and healthy habits such as exercise and how they can have great effects on business leaders, employees, and the productivity of a business.
“Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not.” -Octavia Butler
Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
Consider Stephen Covey’s “7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” These 7 habits are small but compound over time for great results. Covey’s book has been considered as the number 1 “most influential business book of the 20th century” and has sold more than “40 million copies” in over 50 languages (Schwantes, 2020). Covey’s 7 habits are an excellent example of the compounding benefits that small habits can have on business leaders worldwide.
Another small habit that can produce big results is reading. Many highly successful business leaders are also avid readers. For example, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Mark Zuckerberg, Oprah Winfrey, Mark Cuban, David Rubenstein, Phil Knight, and Elon Musk are all avid readers (Weller, 2017). These individuals have the daily and weekly habit of reading to gain more knowledge about the world around them. Warren Buffet is quoted as saying, “that’s how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound interest. All of you can do it, but I guarantee not many of you will do it” to a class at Columbia University (Weller, 2017).
There are several small habits within time management that increase the productivity of those who practice them. Consider the time management habit of creating visual reminders and cues. By placing small reminders via sticky notes or calendar notifications, the chance of important to-dos and tasks falling through the cracks of a busy day is greatly reduced (Strayer University, 2014). When business leaders and employees do not have small but effective time management strategies in place they can waste time at work on unimportant and non-urgent tasks. By investing in small habits of time management, business leaders can reap the compounded benefits of “improved focus, higher quality of work, reduced stress levels, and a better sleep pattern” (Clockify, 2021).
“Your habits will determine your future.” -Jack Canfield
Creating small habits
Clearly, small habits can produce big results. But how do we create these rewarding small habits? First, we must understand the overall goal we want to achieve such as being a better leader. Secondly, we must examine what actions or tasks will get us close to achieving that specific goal. For the executive who wants to be a better business leader, some habits might be listening to leadership TEDTalks, going to workshops, and reading more leadership books. Lastly, these small habits must be implemented into daily, weekly, and monthly life.
Implementing small habits
When implementing these high-impact habits, BJ Fogg, Ph.D., author of “Tiny Habits: The Small Changes that Change Everything,” recommends taking the following steps:
Identify the habit you want to develop.
Create a starter step that will remind you to do the activity.
Shrink the behavior into a habit that is manageable to do every day.
Attach it to a current habit.
Increase time, distance or amount, for example, until you’re meeting the bigger habit. (Martinez, 2021)
Let’s use the example created above and outline how one might begin to implement these steps. Goal: Become a Better Leader
Habit: Read More Leadership Books
Starter step: Place the book I will read on my desk
Shrink the habit: Read 5 pages a day
Attach it to a current habit: I will read 5 pages a day during my lunch break
Increase: Each week I will increase the amount I read by 5 pages
By harnessing the power of small habits, we can produce great waves of change and accomplishment in our lives. What goals do you have that remain unattained? What small habits can you implement to get you closer to achieving these goals? How will you implement these habits into your schedule?
“All big things come from small beginnings. The seed of every habit is a single, tiny decision.” -James Clear, Atomic Habits
Andrew, E. (2019, March 11). The Psychology Of New Year’s Resolutions. IFLScience. https://www.iflscience.com/brain/psychology-new-year-s-resolutions/
BetterHealth. (n.d.). Walking for good health - Better Health Channel.
Clockify. (2021). Time Management Statistics. https://clockify.me/time-management-statistics#:%7E:text=General%20and%20global%20statistics%20of%20time%20management,-%22They%20always%20say&text=Improved%20focus%2C%20higher%20quality%20of,to%20statistics%20on%20the%20subject.
Dickson, J. M., Moberly, N. J., Preece, D., Dodd, A., & Huntley, C. D. (2021). Self-Regulatory Goal Motivational Processes in Sustained New Year Resolution Pursuit and Mental Wellbeing. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 18(6), 3084. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph18063084.
Galla, B. M., & Duckworth, A. L. (2015). More than resisting temptation: Beneficial habits mediate the relationship between self-control and positive life outcomes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 109(3), 508–525. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspp0000026.
Godoy, M. (2021, December 28). Instead of New Year’s resolutions, start and stick with “Tiny Habits.” NPR. https://www.npr.org/2020/02/25/809256398/tiny-habits-are-the-key-to-behavioral-change.
Martinez, S. (2021, September 1). Creating Micro Habits to Achieve Big Goals. MIBluesPerspectives. https://www.mibluesperspectives.com/2021/08/25/creating-micro-habits-to-achieve-big-goals/#:%7E:text=When%20adding%20new%20habits%20to,your%20micro%20habit%20over%20time.
PsychNewsDaily. (2021, December 21). 64% abandon their New Years resolutions within a month, study finds. https://www.psychnewsdaily.com/most-abandon-new-years-resolutions-in-month/.
Schwantes, M. (2020, May 20). How Stephen Covey’s “The 7 Habits” Guides Leaders in Times of Challenge and Uncertainty. Inc.Com. https://www.inc.com/marcel-schwantes/stephen-covey-the-7-habits-of-highly-effective-people-leaders.html.
Shnayder-Adams, M. M., & Sekhar, A. (2021). Micro-habits for life-long learning. Abdominal Radiology, 46(12), 5509–5512. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00261-021-03185-7.
StrayerUniversity. (n.d.). 10 Habits of Highly Effective Time Managers. Retrieved September 29, 2014, from https://www.strayer.edu/buzz/10-habits-highly-effective-time-managers.
Weller. (2017, July 20). 9 of the most successful people share their reading habits. Business Insider. https://www.businessinsider.com/what-successful-people-read-2017-7?international=true&r=US&IR=T#warren-buffett-1.
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