Baby Steps to Big Goals

canstockphoto8948717One day with my flight instructor as we started my commercial pilot certificate lessons, we were taxiing out to the approach end of the runway when I hit the brakes a little too hard. There is a difference in training to be a commercial pilot versus a private pilot, my flight instructor kindly explained. As a private pilot, were essentially just had a license to take my friends and family up to scare the hell out of them, so I could be rough with the controls. As a commercial pilot it was all about gentleness on the controls. “You don’t want to make all the people and back sick do you?” my flight instructor would ask.

 That is when I realized the power of a small change. Caroline Arnold in her book “Small Move, Big Change,” talks about the power of small changes or micro resolutions.  Sometimes in the self-help industry you’ll hear these called “baby steps,” but they work.

“Every personal improvement goal within your power can be reduced to a list of behaviors.” (Arnold 3).

The key to micro resolutions is to find just one or two behavioral changes that will make the big differences. Just like a pilot in an aircraft can make a slight course correction that may not even be noticed by the passengers, but over a short period of time will give that aircraft a completely new destination. But before you decide on that course correction you must identify the circumstance that triggers the behavior (Arnold 5) or the point at which you need to change the behavior.

Let’s say you always forget where your car keys are when you’re ready to leave in the morning. At some point when you arrive home you throw them somewhere, right? That is your trigger point. That is the point where you need to remind yourself of your new, small, micro resolution, to hang them up.

Arnold talks about the seven rules of creating a micro resolution – lets visit four of them in this blog:

  1. Micro resolutions must be easy. Micro resolutions must be easy to obtain so that they provide you an immediate reward. Micro resolutions should also be relatively automatic requiring next to no decision-making. Decision-making is an expensive psychological activity (Arnold 10). Numerous experiments have been conducted to test people’s level of self-control and always, when those tests have been preceded by heavy decision-making, worse decisions are made and there is less self-control (that’s why it is often easy to overeat after a hard day of work and you’re tired).
  2.  Micro resolutions must be a specific action and they must be measurable. The resolution to “get a good nights sleep,” is a worthy goal but it is not in and of itself an action (Arnold 17). However, getting to bed at a specific time is a measurable goal and requires very little decision-making. One of my former bad habits was taking too long to get ready in the morning. Naturally, my goal was to take less time but that is really not measurable nor is it associated with a specific action. I had to identify one action I could take. I love reading the paper in the morning with my cup of coffee. I read the Denver Post and then I follow it up with USA Today. I love reading the paper and having my coffee so much in the morning however its easy to spend too much time doing it. So I gave myself a specific time that no matter what I was doing or where I was at in the paper I would close it and head upstairs to put on my workout gear. I found that by going upstairs just 15 minutes earlier than I normally would saved me nearly 45 minutes of time later in the morning.
  3. A micro resolution pays off upfront (Arnold 23). One of the biggest challenges we face in any personal improvement goal is that we typically do not get an immediate reward and we are immediate reward driven creatures. It is part of our survival instincts, so rather than fight thousands of years of human development let’s take advantage of it. I used to have a habit of eating a few handfuls of dry cereal before I went to bed at night. I noticed though that when I would  get out of that habit I would actually lose a little bit of weight. I gave myself a small goal to have a slice of whole wheat toast with some Stevia added for sweetness rather than dry cereal. While it is still not great to be putting carbohydrates in your stomach late at night it was better than putting all of the sugary and bad–for–you carbs in there, that I was getting from the cereal.  I experienced the immediate reward of not having a little sugar buzz as I tried to go to bed, plus longer-term rewards in helping to manage my weight.
  4.  A micro resolution is personal (Arnold 27). What works for someone else may not work for you so make sure that you thoughtfully analyze your habits to determine the single change that will have the biggest impact in your particular circumstances (Arnold 27).  Arnold does note that many times we’re trying to apply solutions that worked 30 years ago (or maybe didn’t even work back then) to 21st-century problems.

Probably the most important micro resolution I ever made was the one that eventually eliminated my road rage. I have talked about that in this blog series before but it is worthy of mention here because it is directly applicable and it is a goal that if more of us had might actually save some lives on the interstate.

For years I had wanted to get a handle on my road rage but that goal was just as general and ambiguous as “losing weight,” or “getting organized.” I needed something more specific. I decided on the single action that when someone cut me off or another similar trigger event occurred my micro resolution was to have no response. That may seem contrary to what others would suggest, but remember that micro resolutions are personal so I had to do what worked for me. I’d tried other actions and they didn’t work.

I will admit that early on it was a little difficult and there was a lot of seething and simmering that went on, but what I found is I received the immediate reward of not getting engaged in a potential violent confrontation with another driver, not yelling at someone who turned out to be my next-door-neighbor, and I would forget about the incident much sooner. The incident would not haunt me the rest of the day where I would relive it over and over and relive the anger over and over. This also created a series that I could track on a daily basis, and after a while I really didn’t want to break the chain. That just gave me more momentum to the point where my default now is to let it go.

It’s amazing how when I got rid of my road rage so many other people on the highway suddenly started driving better. Ah, the amazing power of micro resolutions.

Arnold, Caroline L. Small Move, Big Change: Using Microresolutions to Transform Your Life Permanently. NY, NY: Viking, 2014. Print.

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