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Changing Habits? You Need to Shrink the Change

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by Chris Kresser

Are you changing your habits? Maybe your goal is to eat healthier and lose a few pounds or get more sleep.


Whatever your objective, kudos for planning to improve your health and well-being. But do you know how to set yourself up for success? When it comes to making changes, should you think big or start small?

The answer may surprise you in our aim-high culture, yet decades of research have made it clear: you’re more likely to achieve your goals when they’re small and attainable. It’s humble, incremental shifts that truly help you alter long-held habits. Read on to learn how to “shrink the change” you hope to make in the coming months.

You can learn to eat better, get more exercise, sleep more, or manage your stress. Just shrink the change! Find out how to shrink big changes into manageable steps and get a free handout to help. #healthylifestyle #changeagent #chriskresser

Forget Willpower—Here’s a Better Method for Changing Your Habits

If you believe that the key to changing an unhealthy habit is to grit your teeth and tap into an elusive thing called willpower, then you’re falling into an age-old trap—one that trips up even the most determined individuals.

When asked, many people regularly cite lack of self-control as the number-one reason they don’t follow through on lifestyle changes like eating right and exercising. (1) And yet the science shows that when it comes to changing your behavior, willpower isn’t as important as you might think—and it can even sabotage your efforts.

For example, past studies have found that people who say they have excellent self-discipline hardly use the skill: they simply don’t put themselves in positions in which they need to call on self-control in the first place. For example, they don’t white-knuckle their way into resisting candy bars or bags of chips. They just don’t keep this stuff around to tempt them. (2, 3)

Piggybacking on these findings, recent research adds that those who do actually exert willpower aren’t necessarily more likely to accomplish their goals compared to those who don’t use willpower. Once again, it’s people who experience fewer temptations overall (who strive not to be tempted, versus not to act on temptation) who are more successful. (4, 5, 6) And here’s another strike against willpower: in this particular study, participants who exercised more self-control reported feeling exhausted from doing so.

This latter finding hits on a growing body of research into “willpower depletion,” the idea that willpower is a limited resource, one that becomes weaker and less reliable the more you tap into it. Think of self-control like a cell phone battery that charges while you rest; it’s full when you wake up, but runs down over the day. Willpower appears to literally drain your brain, negatively impacting cognition and functioning and thus your chances of meeting your goals. (And unlike a battery, you can’t just “recharge” your willpower overnight.) (7)

Your Strategy Instead? Think Small—Really, Really Small

As I see it, then, the best way to address the challenge of any big behavior change is to shrink the change down into small goals. That way, when it comes time to take action, willpower doesn’t even enter the equation.

How small am I talking? Ridiculously small. You want your goal to be entirely doable.

Take this example. Say your overall aim is to reduce stress through a meditation practice. Instead of thinking, “Starting now I’m going to devote one hour a day to meditation practice,” start much (much) smaller. Your small steps for getting there might look something like this:

  1. Find a space in my house conducive to meditation. (If needed, the next goal could be to spruce up or reorganize the space.)
  2. Buy a meditation cushion.
  3. Download a meditation app, such as Headspace.
  4. Use the app one day this week to meditate for one minute at a time.
  5. Use the app two days next week to meditate for two minutes each time.

Keep going until you’ve worked your way up to regular, longer meditation sessions. Eventually, you’ll no longer need any guided help, and you’ll have built a new habit.

Here are some other ideas.

Big change: Be less sedentary and more physically active. (Hint: “Go to the gym five days a week” is likely too big)

Small goals: 

  • Buy a pedometer or fitness tracker this week
  • Take 2,000 steps a day next week by taking the stairs, taking walking breaks at work, and parking farther away
  • Call a friend and schedule a 30-minute walk in the next three days
  • Take that 30-minute walk

Big change: Get more sleep. (Hint: “Get to bed an hour earlier every night” is perhaps too big)

Small goals:

Big change: Eat better. (Hint: “Cut out all fried foods and sweets” may be too big for you)

Small goals: 

Notice something about these examples? They’re distinct and measurable. (Note the specific amounts, distances, time frames, and so on.) That’s because this strategy for behavior-change success isn’t only about making small goals—it’s also about tracking those goals and celebrating every incremental win.

As humans, we tend to focus on what’s wrong rather than what’s right. Making your progress visible and recognizing your victories fuels hope that you will accomplish what you’ve set out to.

Try This: Shrink the Change for Your Next Big Goal

Before you read any further, I want you to try this out for yourself. Get out a pen and piece of paper and take a moment to practice shrinking the change while it’s fresh in your mind.

First, select one behavior change you’d like to make for yourself within the next 30 days. List the small, concrete, and doable steps you can take to achieve this change. Try to limit yourself to just a few steps; don’t get bogged down listing everything at once.

Finally, for the steps you’ve outlined, list how you will track and celebrate each goal you accomplish.

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Why Shrinking the Change Produces Lasting Results

When you set small goals, track them, and honor your achievements, you build the momentum and confidence needed to fulfill your larger mission. And checking off accomplishments just feels good, doesn’t it? Ever wondered why?

When you deliver on a promise to yourself, your brain essentially rewards you by releasing the “feel good” neurotransmitter dopamine, which is responsible for pleasure, learning, and motivation. You experience greater concentration and the desire to re-experience the activity that triggered the dopamine release. (8, 9)

This is precisely why shrinking the change works: with each win, dopamine rewires your brain for continued success. Conversely, each time you fail, you deplete your brain of dopamine. Put another way, the brain learns from success, not failure.

Science bears this out. In an MIT study involving monkeys who were trained to view and then choose certain images from a computer screen and get a reward when they picked the “correct” answer, when the animals—whose brain activity was being monitored—were right, they received a positive brain signal that was the equivalent of a “great job!” high five, along with the reward.

Furthermore, the neural stimulation from choosing the correct image spurred the monkeys on, and with their focus sharpened, they were likely to get the next answer right. After an error, however, there was little change in their brain activity. The monkeys—like us—learned from their successes, and not their failures. (10)

The Big Picture: Better Habits Make for Better Health

The small goals that lead to a successful reversal of unwise habits have far from a modest impact on your health. In fact, behavior change may be the single-most important way you can prevent and reverse chronic disease.

As I’ve written before, we now know that our genes are not our destiny and that environment—including the lifestyle choices we make—is the primary driver of health and longevity. The five most important behaviors for preventing chronic illness are:

  1. Not smoking
  2. Exercising regularly
  3. Drinking moderately, or not at all
  4. Maintaining a healthy body weight
  5. Getting enough sleep

Shockingly, according to the CDC, only 6.3 percent of Americans practice all five habits, which could explain the meteoric rise in chronic disease. (11)

A recent Harvard study looked at these habits’ impact on longevity (with healthy diet substituted for enough sleep). Researchers found that men who followed all five habits could add an average of 12 years to their life; for women who did the same, that number jumped to 14. Participants experienced a decrease in mortality from cancer and cardiovascular disease, in particular. (12)

Making It Stick: Get the Help of a Health Coach

Even when you set small, manageable goals, meeting them—and sticking with the resulting changes for the long haul—won’t always be easy. I encourage you to seek the support of a health coach as part of your Functional Medicine care team. A health coach will walk with you through the process of behavior change and encourage you every step of the way.

Improving your health and changing your health behaviors requires a lot of work and focus. How can you become more efficient with these changes? By building habits.

Habits are the brain’s way of increasing its efficiency. If we had to consciously make decisions about every action we took throughout the day, we would be stuck in analysis paralysis. Building habits not only helps us cut down on the time it takes to perform behaviors, but it makes those behaviors stick.

As a health coach, it’s crucial to understand all of this. Health coaches are in the best position to support people in changing their behavior. Doctors and most other medical professionals don’t have the time or training to do it, and even if they did, appointment times just aren’t long enough. In fact, it’s not an exaggeration to say that helping people to change their behavior is the primary job of a health coach. Just sharing your expertise and giving information about diet and lifestyle is only going to succeed in about 5 to 10 percent of cases, even if it’s the right information. With the remaining 90 to 95 percent of cases, you’ll need to work with people to change their behavior, reverse bad habits, and create new habits in order to achieve their goals.

Want to learn more about habits and ways to build them like habit stacking, shrinking the change, and the cue-routine-reward loop? That’s part of what we teach in the ADAPT Health Coach Training Program. Click here to learn more.

Health coaches are uniquely qualified for this supportive role. They are highly trained in human behavior, motivation, and health, and they embrace a variety of strategies—like shrinking the change—to help guide you while you’re changing your habits. They don’t follow the typical “expert” model that’s so common in healthcare. Instead, they partner with you to understand your current condition, flesh out your goals, create doable objectives, and hold you accountable.

And because of their approach, you get results. In one of many studies on the impressive success rates attributable to health coaching, coached obese individuals were more likely to have lost at least 5 percent of their body weight up to 24 months after completing a coaching program than those who did not have intervention. (13) Working with a health coach can help you achieve lasting change here. (And if you’re interested in becoming a health coach yourself, check out the ADAPT Health Coach Training Program.)

The take-home message: Society may tell you to shoot for the stars, but it’s perfectly okay—and actually advisable when it comes to changing your habits—to aim for what’s within reach. Small goals will help you achieve seemingly small behavioral changes that add up to big benefits for your health.

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