When Trying to Change Your Habits, It Helps to Think Small

Written by on November 17th, 2016 // Filed under Craft Of Writing, Encouragement & Philosophy, Erika Viktor

rice

Inside the office where I run my business, there is an enormous transparent glass jar filled with rice. When people stop by, they inevitably ask what the jar is for. I always answer that “it’s an experiment.” This answer usually is enough to stop further questioning.

The rice came from a seven-pound bag I bought at the grocery store several years ago when I noticed I was sliding a little too far out of my optimal zone. It is estimated to contain over 200,000 individual grains of rice. Next to the large jar is a miniature mason jar that contains a mere couple hundred grains of rice, which isn’t enough to obscure the bottom of the jar.

These two jars are evidence of my slightly (or not so slightly) insane form of self construction, or maybe its simply a wacked out form of OCD, I can’t be sure.

The large jar represents my habits, everything from how long I brush my teeth to how fast I drive on the freeway. It represents thoughts I frequent, feelings I indluge in, beliefs–helpful and not helpful–about the world at large.

It also represents habits in potential, those bits of inner self control to which I aspire.

The mason jar, the puny, mostly-empty thing that rests next to the big jar, represents habit change.

We are nothing but a collection of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of habits. Our success, our awareness, our mistakes and our destruction are no less than a numbered amount of neurological pathways traveled over and over again throughout our lives.

Often, we decide to change something in our lives. We want to lose weight, or stop overspending or get to the page and do a little writing every day. But all acts that we do not engage in daily (i.e. non-habits) requires units of willpower, which are finite. Our store of willpower is affected by dozens, if not hundreds of factors including how much sleep we got the night before, if we are on good terms with our mother and how much glucose is in our brains. There are so many factors affecting our willpower on any given day, that willpower becomes a totally unreliable source of strength for those wanting to change.

You know this already. You tried to change big things and failed after a few days. Then you tried again, and failed again. Over and over and over. Maybe you were so discouraged, you gave up.

This happened to me too. Hundreds, if not thousands of times, until I discovered the concept of the smallest possible change.

Social psychologists estimate that each global lifestyle transformation requires the change or elimination of 60 or more small habits. That means if you want to floss every day you have to get into the habit of buying the floss, putting the floss next to your toothbrush, walking in the bathroom at night, remembering to floss, flossing each tooth, etc etc etc. You can see that even that tiny change would require quite a bit of small cues.

Each grain of rice in the mason jar represents tiny changes I have made. They are so minuscule that they use almost no units of willpower. Once I decide on a change, I dip my finger in the large jar and place a single grain of rice in the mason jar.

I will give you a small example of one small change. I wanted to learn about a certain aspect of investing but it seemed too daunting. I bought a big book on the subject and began reading. The information was dense and hard to follow. I set the book down for a couple months because I got too discouraged. Then I decided to make the smallest possible change. I would pick up the book for five minutes each night before going to bed.

I quickly realized that five minutes wasn’t a small enough, so settled instead on only one minute.

This tiny minute costs me nothing in willpower. I was able to do it when sick, when angry, when tired and when frustrated. And guess what, sometimes one minute would turn into fifteen minutes. I finished the book after a few months and my brain didn’t explode with the effort.

Each tiny grain of rice in a seven-pound bag may seem insignificant, but it plays an important role in adding to the weight of the whole. A less aware person would toss aside a single grain, deeming it unimportant. They would grab for a handful and in the grabbing, let slip many grains through their fingers until they were all spilled.

When you are considering a change of lifestyle, a grand goal or a movement away from some unworthy habit, don’t think big change.

Think about a grain of rice instead.

 

 

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