Back in 2007 when I was a senior in high school, I had an identity crisis and switched from being a varsity long-distance runner to a wiry, inexperienced pole vaulter. This new sport required speed and acceleration – both of which I had little.
For a while, I couldn’t even clear the opening height of 8 feet, which is lower than the world record high jump.
Despite all of my practice, I didn’t seem to improve and I felt discouraged. I knew this was a highly technical sport and figured it would take years of practice to learn.
But one day, my coach told me to wait just a fraction of a second longer before turning and dismounting from the pole. This would allow the pole to be more vertical and my body to be closer to the bar, meaning I wouldn’t come down too early and hit it. I tried it and sailed over the bar like I’d been thrown from a trebuchet.
I ended up winning the District Conference and competing in the 5A State Competition. I vaulted 12’0″ in one try, securing me 8th place and a spot on the podium (although I unwittingly went back to the hotel leaving the announcer calling my name helplessly and coming back to a very irate coach).
The lesson I learned: just a small change in my technique caused an immense change in my performance.
This concept is discussed thoroughly in the book Switch, a bestselling book by Chip and Dan Heath. It may seem counter-intuitive to our current notions about change – that a large problem requires a large solution. However, sometimes small, simple changes can result in disproportionate gains.
Sometimes an improvement we want to make in our diet or exercise habits, study habits, or even personality habits seems too large to overcome and so we procrastinate and make excuses and never change.
This proved true in my diet. I’d rarely eat fruits and vegetables because I didn’t want to cut them, so they’d perish in my refrigerator. I despise kitchen work, and would rather go clean the toilets at the local brothel than do anything in the kitchen other than boil noodles.
One day, I made a tiny change in the process. When I returned from the store, rather than getting on my laptop, reading, or admiring myself in the mirror, I chose to cut up the produce immediately and store it in mason jars.
Now that the hard work was over, I could just throw ready-to-go ingredients in my NutriBullet instead of spending 50 hours washing, cutting, and cleaning up each time. This made it a lot easier to eat green things, and now it’s a daily ritual.
By removing the obstacle, I made it easier to change my habits.
For some of us, this may mean cutting your vegetables early, leaving your guitar out of its case to encourage you to practice, or even putting on your gym clothes right when you get home so you feel more motivated to work out.
All of these simple changes help us remove the obstacles that psychologically block us from taking the right actions. Again, a small change in the way you do things can have enormous effects.
We’ve seen that small changes can make a big difference in your habits. Well the same concept works in goal-setting.
Say you have a goal to clean your apartment. The dishes are piled up, trash is overflowing, clothes are strewn about the living room, and you can literally see your own footprints in the layers of dust on your floor.
The worse conditions get, the less inclined you are to clean. So rather than spending a day sweeping your floors and washing your dishes, break the larger goal down into much smaller ones. Set a timer and clean in only 5 minute increments repeatedly throughout the day. This makes a seemingly overwhelming task a much more manageable.
This same idea of incremental gains works in a variety of different pursuits. If you’re having trouble writing, just write one sentence every hour. If you’re practicing for an interview, practice answering one question every 45 minutes. Study in 20 minute increments, or read one page and then put the book down for 15 minutes.
The point is to take smaller steps consistently in working toward a much larger goal. That way, we experience quick wins and our progress becomes a lot more visible.
Once we see progress, we feel motivated to keep going. Our small wins give us the hope that change is possible.
“Don’t look for the quick, big improvement. Seek the small improvement one day at a time.” – Coach John Wooden
As you’re reading this, perhaps you’re thinking of some small changes you can make to build positive habits whether that’s in your diet, exercise, studying, work, or even self-confidence.
These are probably changes we’ve known we should make for months, maybe years, but still we haven’t made them.
So why would we consciously continue our bad behavior?
Because information alone is not enough to motivate us. Knowing the harm in our habits does not make us change them.
Think of why people skip the gym, smoke cigarettes, or drink 18 cans of soda every day, even when there is overwhelming evidence that shows how these habits are literally KILLING them.
You’ll even hear people say things like, “I know I should work out, but I’m too lazy,” or “I should probably be more social but I’m shy and introverted.”
No matter how much an argument appeals to us logically, if our emotions aren’t hooked as well then neither are we. In fact, we’ll likely rationalize our destructive behavior anyway in order to resolve our own cognitive dissonance.
Instead of providing more information and encouraging change through education, we have to cultivate change through self-identity. Only once we see ourselves as someone who makes that type of change in our behavior or someone who behaves in the ideal way can we make up our mind to start changing our habits.
Everything we do – the food we eat, the products we purchase, the way we vote, the shows we watch, and the goals we set – comes down to our self-identity. So if we identify as being lazy, undisciplined, angry, shy, or insecure, what will our behavior be like?
The truth is that if you want to be a leader, first start seeing yourself as a leader. If you want to change your diet, start seeing yourself as someone who is health-conscious. If you want to stop smoking, start by seeing yourself as a non-smoker. If you want to be more confident, see yourself as someone who acts and thinks confidently.
When our identity changes, our behavior will change as well.
Also, having small, quick wins helps to reinforce and validate this new identity and encourage us to keep moving in the positive direction. When we can see results immediately, it gives us hope that change is imminent and maybe the change we thought was so hard isn’t so difficult after all.
- Small improvements can have immense results (pole vaulting technique)
- Remove the obstacle (cutting vegetables beforehand)
- Break large goals into smaller ones (cleaning for 5 minutes instead of 5 hours)
- Change self-identity to change bad habits
***To learn more about human behavior and how to break bad habits, check out Switch, by Chip and Dan Heath.***
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