I’ve written in previous posts that asking the right questions can help you overcome fear of failure and identify your true passions. Another thing questioning can do is enable you to approach a daunting problem by breaking it down into smaller challenges and more actionable steps. And it can start with asking a simple but very powerful question: What if I made one small change?
Often when we attempt to enact change in our lives or in the ways we work, we start out thinking too big, says Wall Street executive and author Caroline Arnold. We try to do too much, too soon—which sets us up for failure. And as Arnold explains in her book Small Move, Big Change, if you repeatedly fail to live up to your resolutions and goals, after a while you almost begin to expect failure.
But what if you began all of your self-improvement efforts by actually expecting to succeed? That was a question Arnold pondered as she embarked on an experimental project that became the basis of her book.
Arnold is a high achiever on Wall Street (as a top executive at Morgan Stanley, she was a key player in the Google IPO and today serves as a managing director at Goldman Sachs), but she had a long track record of failing at various self-improvement goals. "I couldn’t understand why my determination to get things done at work didn’t translate to my personal life," Arnold told me in a recent interview.
At one point, after failing to make headway on a large, vague resolution—"to get organized"—she opted to try a more modest, targeted approach. "I decided to focus on one organizational behavior and try to nail that," she said. The resolution was to begin keeping all her written notes, reminders, and to-do lists in a single notebook. It took some initial effort, but writing everything in the notebook soon became a habit—and Arnold saw solid gains in her efficiency and productivity.
This inspired her to ask: What if I made another small change—this time, involving diet?
She resolved to do one specific thing: stop eating the cookies in the Morgan Stanley conference room. After succeeding at that, she felt confident that she could take on more small changes and embarked upon what she called "my year of behaving differently." She picked up about 20 new behaviors during that time, all rooted in discrete, modest goals—or, to use Arnold’s term, "microresolutions."
Case in point: Instead of trying to "get in shape" Arnold focused on one behavior—walking to work instead of taking the train. And she only committed to doing this once a week, on Mondays. Eventually that became a habit and now she walks to work every day.
Arnold found that in most cases, a new behavior becomes a habit in about four to six weeks. At that point, it starts to be part of our "autopilot" system and requires much less attention and willpower. "It’s about being hyper-mindful of doing something until it becomes mindless," she says.
Another proponent of the "small change" philosophy is the humorist A.J. Jacobs, a columnist for Esquire and author of several books. A few years back, Jacobs did an exercise (which became an Esquire article) in which he tracked everything he did during the course of his day—and then asked himself why he had made each decision, no matter how small.
For example, Why did he use Crest toothpaste? Thinking about it, he realized "it was because I had some friends at camp when I was 12 years old who used to tell me it was a cool toothpaste. That’s literally why I used it for 30 years." Such was the case with many of his daily activities and choices. "You discover that we do so many things by rote," he said.
With a number of these habits, Jacobs began asking, What if I made one small change? He started with the toothpaste. Then he moved his work desk to face in a different direction—because, as he says, "Why should I always face the same way?" He recommends trying small changes in everything from the route you take to work, to the way you dress or something you do every day around the house.
Changing your toothpaste or moving your desk may seem trivial, but as Jacobs points out, if you make small changes on a regular basis "it keeps you from staying in the same ruts all the time. It allows you to see the world in different ways." Another benefit of doing small experiments is that they provide an opportunity to practice making changes—which can lead to becoming more comfortable with change in general.
If you find you’re having trouble following through on a small behavioral change, Jacobs offers this tip: If necessary, fake it until you make it; in other words, act as if it’s a habit until it actually becomes one. "If you just go ahead and do something differently, and you do it enough times," you can condition your brain to think of it as a natural behavior, he says. Jacobs used this trick to improve his posture by "acting as if" he had good posture until he actually did; he also used it to get in the habit of smiling more.
One of the biggest challenges of the small-change approach is that it can be hard for some people—especially ambitious, driven people—to scale back their goals. Take Caroline Arnold’s "walk to work on Mondays" example: Many achievers would tend to say, If I’m going to do this, why not just resolve to walk to work every day? But that greatly increases the chances you’ll fail to meet this higher standard and then give up on the whole thing, Arnold says. The better approach is to hold yourself to the more modest goal. If you’re able to exceed that (by, say, walking to work four times in a given week), that’s great—but the only measurement standard you should use for success/failure is whether you walked on the one day.
Bottom line: Resist the urge to try to change too much, too quickly. Begin, instead, by asking, What if I made one small change?
As Arnold points out, "There’s really no such thing as a small behavioral change, in terms of impact. Everything that affects our weight, our health, our productivity at work—it all involves small things that are happening at the margins. By working the margins, you gradually get to where you want to be."