A Beginner’s Guide to the Art of Tiny Change
Life is constantly changing, and we’re changing with it—mostly at a slow barely noticeable and unconscious pace. When it comes to mindful change, however, we tend to favor the big and mighty. Dream big or go home.
Dreaming big is fine. And big steps are okay, if you can sustain them. But, in most cases, we can’t. We either lose our initial enthusiasm, or we find it too hard to keep going.
A more effective alternative is to work with life, and embrace tiny change.
Tiny is the smallest of small, the simplest of simple, and easier than easy. It doesn’t require a lot of energy or time, and as such won’t trigger automatic programs of resistance and excuses.
Little subtle changes can hardly be noticed, but they make the biggest difference—over time. Let’s look at an example.
The cumulative effect of tiny change
Think of this scenario.
If a person only gained half a pound (about 1/4 kg) a month from eating an extra 60 calories a day (less than one slice of bread), by the end of the year she would’ve gained six lbs.
This may not be a big deal. But over five years, it becomes 30. And over ten years it’s 60, making it a big difference.
We can reverse the situation. If someone lost half a pound a month, they’d be 60 pounds lighter in ten years.
It may not feel like much, but would you rather lose 30 pounds over 5 years, or remain the same (if not gain more) if you don’t start with one tiny change?
I’ve been experimenting with tiny changes for a while and like most things in life, there is an upside and a downside to each choice. So let’s look at both before beginning a change.
Advantages and disadvantages of tiny change
The appeal of tiny change can be summed up in a few but significant benefits.
A tiny change is easy to do. It doesn’t require a lot of willpower and discipline.
It doesn’t take long. It’s not prone to resistance and fear as much as the massive steps we normally want to take.
It can be fun. A few minutes of doing something will not be grueling and painful. So we’ll be more inclined to do them. After a while, it becomes a habit, and we’ll start looking forward to doing it because it’s easy and gives us a sense of accomplishment.
Tiny changes can trickle to other areas of life. A small change performed consistently can inspire other changes, even in unrelated areas of life.
Now let’s look at the other side.
Progress is not visible. Tiny changes take time to pay off. It’s fairly easy to feel discouraged when we don’t see immediate results.
Tiny changes take too long. Not seeing results, and thinking that something is taking too much of our time can confuse our priorities. So we might be tempted to stop and do something else.
It may feel like others are doing better. Small changes may not compare well with others who are going full speed. This can be demotivating.
Keeping these setbacks in mind is helpful when implementing small changes.
Now let’s begin.
How to start and sustain a tiny change
A tiny change by nature doesn’t require a lot of effort and commitment. So it’s fairly easy to start and maintain.
1- Make a choice. Pick an area that you’d like to change in your life (form a new habit, change a habit, or learn something new). Then decide on one small step that you can start doing right now. A few examples are noted at the end of this article.
2- Assign time. You need to decide ahead of time when you’re going to perform your task. To make things easier, anchor the step to an established routine. Then note it down on your to-do list, or calendar, to remind yourself to do it. Your calendar can be your best support and motivation system.
3- Do. Just do the tiny step, the best you can. You don’t have to worry about what will happen after.
4- If you skip, pick up again, without beating yourself up. Sometimes unexpected interruptions get in the way, or we simply slip up. Embrace your humanity and cut yourself some slack. You’re not a robot.
5- Keep going for at least a week before you add more. If you complete a week without struggle or setbacks, you can add more time, or another tiny task.
6- Track your progress and reflect. Tiny change doesn’t bring visible results right away, so keep track of your actions in a journal, or by marking your calendar each day. Reflect on what you’ve accomplished and how you’ve changed every few weeks.
7- Remain open to inspiration. Sometimes, and out of nowhere, you might get an idea that’s completely unrelated to your change. You might be working on your diet, for example, but you get this spark of inspiration about cutting down on clutter, or an idea for a work project. Note it down. Your subconscious is communicating with you about things that are important. It might come in handy in the future.
That’s it. If you stick with these few steps, you’ll do great.
The art aspect of tiny change comes from how you use and adapt these steps to suit your choice of action, preferences, and circumstances.
A few reminders
The steps above are simple and easy to do—if we don’t self-sabotage. Consider the following reminders, when implementing any change.
Mindset is everything. The biggest thing that stands in the way of any change, big or small, is our own mindset. Others can be supportive or critical; things can go right or wrong. We’re the ones, however, who choose to hide behind excuses and give up.
Prepare ahead of time. Preparation helps in minimizing resistance and wasted time.
Declare your commitment? Or keep it to yourself? It’s up to you. Personally, I’ve been doing better with keeping things to myself. You can share your intentions and progress with the world, or a few trusted friends, or no one at all. Do what feels comfortable to you, to reduce stress and anxiety.
Let go of movie star expectations. Ever see a movie star morph into a completely new person in a few months? It’s tempting to expect the same from ourselves, which is unrealistic. Movie stars are not better, or more, capable than any other person. They just have the time and resources to focus on one thing. When they train for a role, they’re not working on anything else. This can be sustainable for a few months, but not for a lifetime. We’re aiming for long lasting change.
It doesn’t have to be perfect. The most important thing is to start and do your best. Seeking perfection is a form of resistance.
Repetition is key to mastery. A small repetitive step is not boring or unimportant. It’s how we develop habits and improve over time. When we start something new, it might feel odd, but with practice it will become enjoyable.
The more you do, the more you become aware. Your attention to detail will improve with each action. You’ll notice what works, and what doesn’t. You’ll become more comfortable with the process of change and … turn it into an art form.
Examples of tiny change
A few ideas below to get you started.
Losing weight: If you want to lose weight, you need to focus on your food intake. If you have a sweet tooth, you can replace a piece of cake or candy bar with a banana (or any other fruit)—just one change, for at least a week. Later, you can replace a sugary breakfast cereal with oatmeal. Keep modifying one choice of food at a time.
Exercise: Start with 2 minutes of marching in place. If you don’t want to time yourself. Count your moves up to 120. Doing an exercise video? Do the first move or two.
House cleaning: Start with one daily step. For example, dust your night stand, or clean the kitchen sink, or clean the bathroom sink after you brush your teeth.
Decluttering a space: Get rid of one paper each day. Or file one paper each day. Over a year, that’s about 250 papers (assuming you took the weekends and a couple of weeks off).
Learn a new language. Sign up online with Duolingo and do one session (takes 5 minutes). You’ll learn about 5 words per session. If it’s too much, repeat the same session and learn only one word per day.
Get finances under control. Deal with one bill each day: pay it, file it, or throw it out if it’s old. Or log in to your account online and look at your balance and the expenses you made recently—for a few minutes. A few minutes a day can transform an attitude of avoidance. You’ll become more aware and feel empowered to make different choices.
Learn a new skill. Start with a few minutes (or one page) of a book, or blog article, or course. Want to play an instrument? Play for one minute. Want to write? Write one sentence.
Anything worth doing might feel difficult and overwhelming. But it doesn’t have to feel like rocket science.
When we break a big dream into its tiniest pieces, we can start taking action. And every action teaches, motivates, and inspires—and that’s art at its best.