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Think Small, Act Big: How to Create "Microresolutions" That Lead to Lasting Change

Small Move, Big Change
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Small Move, Big ChangePhoto: Penguin Group

Remember that New Year’s resolution from few weeks ago? Weaknesses left over from 2013, like reaching for cookies as soon as dinner was over, skipping the gym after work, and staying up late on weeknights would soon be things of the past. Except… they’re not. Not even a month out of the gate, willpower has stalled, resolutions have crumbled, and old habits are stronger than ever [1].

According to author Caroline Arnold, our resolutions don’t stick because they’re usually too big. In her new book, “Small Move, Big Change,” Arnold explains how “microresolutions” — tiny behavioral modifications that can be incorporated into daily habits — are the key to making lasting changes for life.  

“Small Move, Big Change” explains how to look at existing tendencies, recognize the actions and external cues that trigger a behavior, and re-wire routines to turn a new and improved behavior into a habit, all without using much willpower [2]. I interviewed Arnold to learn how to apply her theory of microresolutions to any goal for 2014. Read on to discover how smaller truly can be better [3].

The Resolution Revolution: What’s the Deal?

Caroline Arnold isn’t a self-help guru by any stretch. She’s a technology whiz who’s worked for decades at high-powered Wall Street investment banks. And like many of us, despite her ability to move mountains at work, her personal New Year’s resolutions always failed miserably.

Instead of giving up, Arnold applied her career skills to her own life by closely analyzing her habits. She identified the actions, situations, cues, and mental phrases (which she calls “mantras”) that triggered an unwanted behavior. Then, she “reverse-engineered” them to lead to desirable habits instead. She soon found that the smaller the scale, the easier it was to stick to a resolution, since the brain and body tend to resist any change that deviates from our “autopilot” settings [4]. After looking into the science behind how we form and change habits and behaviors, she decided to write a book and share her theory of microresolutions with the world [5] [6].

In the process of researching and soliciting case studies, Arnold uncovered three main findings regarding habits and resolutions:

1. Most resolutions fail because they’re too ambitious. They require so much willpower that they rarely ever become “autopilot.” In contrast, one reason microresolutions are so successful, according to Arnold, is because they’re so small that it would be kind of pathetic to fail.

2. Big changes happen at the margins of activities we already do. A microresolution won’t succeed if it’s a drastic, completely new habit that’s entirely unfamiliar. It should instead build on an existing behavior or activity.

3. Microresolutions are, above all, specific and personal. Because the parameters of victory or failure are extremely easy to discern (and adapt to your own lifestyle), microresolutions are easier to enforce, and turn into habits, than more abstract, ambitious goals.

Presto, Chango: Your Action Plan

How do you make your own microresolution? Arnold suggests taking four basic steps, which she dubs Action, Cue, Framing, and Resolution. Follow the steps below to create your own effective, easy-to-follow plan for change.

Note: To make these abstract concepts more concrete, I asked Arnold to help me reorganize my New Year’s resolution of not getting frustrated or annoyed on public transportation into an actionable microresolution. Each of the four steps includes an example from my personal resolution as a guideline for implementing these steps in your own life.

1. Action

Start by paying attention to and writing down the times when you notice the thing you want to change. It’s necessary to be mindful and really examine the causes and effects of existing habits.

Example: I start to feel annoyed when I crowd into the subway and am immediately stuck between a stranger’s armpit, a metal barrier, and someone’s over-perfumed hair.

2. Cue

Choose an action that’s already part of “autopilot” and that can help you remember your resolution. Arnold strongly believes that tying a new habit to a preexisting behavior can help it stick better.

Example: I tied my microresolution to the action of swiping my transit pass and walking through the turnstile. Since there’s usually a line during my morning commute, it’s a good time to get mindful and orient my attitude.

3. Framing

Create a “mantra” for the intended behavior. Not all framings “fit” right out of the gate — it’s important to tweak the phrasing so it makes sense and is easy to remember. Once you’ve created an effective mantra that reflects your microresolution, focus on it whenever you encounter the Cue.

Example: Arnold helped me create the mantra, “We’re all excited to go to work together,” which reminded me that I was looking forward to the workday and glad to be a part of New York City’s workforce. I repeat my mantra whenever I swipe my metrocard (Cue), and whenever I’m feeling crowded on the train (Action) and need a quick change in attitude.

4. Resolution

Redefine your resolution in small, easily achievable terms. Remember the “micro” part here. It’s okay if the original resolution (“no cookies before bed”) inspires other improved behaviors (“no cookies except for special occasions”), but don’t adjust the microresolution to make it macro — you’ll be surprised at how fast your progress dips.

Example: I resolved to make eye contact and smile with at least one person per subway ride. The human connection reinforces the idea that “we’re all together” and the sentiment that “we’re all excited."

The Takeaway

So far, my microresolution has been a success (although it’s only been a short time since I incorporated it into my routine). Repeating my personalized “mantra” definitely shifts my mindset every time I step into an overcrowded subway car, and has made my morning and evening commutes much more pleasant. I’ve noticed that I’m already in a better mood when I arrive at work and am less likely to snap at my roommates when I get home at night.  

Hopefully, using the three main principles and the four steps illustrated above, you can create equally effective microresolutions to change your habits in 2014 and beyond.

Have you ever tried microresolutions to make lasting behavioral changes? Share your experience in the comments below or get in touch with the author on Twitter @SophBreene

"Small Move, Big Change" is available for sale for $22 in most local bookstores and online

Works Cited +

  1. Auld lang syne: success predictors, change processes, and self-reported outcomes of New Year's resolvers and nonresolvers. Norcross, J.C, Mrykalo, M.S, Blagys, M.D. Journal of Clinical Psychology 2002; 58(4):397-405
  2. Self-regulation and depletion of limited resources: does self-control resemble a muscle. Muraven M, Baumeister RF. Psychological Bulletin. 2000 Mar; 126(2):247-59.
  3. Reduced specificity of personal goals and explanations for goal attainment in major depression. Dickson JM, Moberly NJ. Public Library Of Science One, 2013 May 15;8(5):e64512.
  4. The automatic component of habit in health behavior: habit as cue-contingent automaticity. Orbell S, Verplanken B. Healthy Psychology. 2010 Jul; 29(4):374-83.
  5. Making choices impairs subsequent self-control: a limited-resource account of decision making, self-regulation, and active initiative. Vohs KD, Baumeister RF, Schmeichel BJ, Twenge JM, Nelson NM, Tice DM. Journal of Personal and Social Psychology. 2008 May;94(5):883-98.
  6. Experience of habit formation: a qualitative study. Lally P, Wardle J, Gardner B. Psychology, Health & Medicine. 2011 Aug; 16(4):484-9.

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