Well, it’s that time of the year.
February is here and by now, most people have quit on their New Year’s Resolutions (NYR).
Did that also happen to you?
What went wrong?
A few weeks ago, you were so excited about the new year and now…
You may not know this but I’m here to tell you that it’s not your fault. In fact, it’s a good thing you stumbled a bit. Because you may have fallen off the horse, it’ll make it that much easier to get back up, dust yourself off, and hit the trail smarter, better, and faster.
Did you know that NYR actually set you up to fail?
Yep, they do.
Change is hard.
You already know that.
What’s worse is that big changes are not only harder, sometimes they are insurmountable.
Sure, you can tell stories of your heroes who overcame incredible hurdles to change their stars and created massive success against all odds. But for us mere mortals, setting yourself up for crazy odds are a recipe for disaster.
Don’t take my word for it. Dr. Robert Maurer, Director of Behavioral Science at UCLA and author of, One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way, states:
All changes, even positive ones, are scary. Attempts to reach goals through radical or revolutionary means often fail because they heighten fear.
So, instead of big hairy audacious goals (BHAG) of New Year’s Resolutions, Dr. Maurer suggests small simple steps as the secret to success.
…small steps of kaizen disarm the brain’s fear response, stimulating rational thought and creative play.
What About Bob? and Baby Steps
Bill Murray and Richard Dreyfus in, What About Bob? offer a hilarious glimpse into adopting the strategy of taking small baby steps.
The character, Bob, played by Bill Murray, has “problems.” He exhibits obsessive-compulsive disorders, is filled with numerous phobias, and has a very dependent personality style. Bob is sent by his therapist, who can no longer deal with him, to a colleague the therapist resents for his success and arrogant disposition, Dr. Leo Marvin, played beautifully by Richard Dreyfus
Hopefully, as seen in the video clip above, your results with baby steps will be better than Bob’s.
All kidding aside (for now), small steps are simply a better badass approach for creating long-term success.
Baby steps are easy to do. Small steps that take less than a few minutes are easier to fit into your already busy schedule, plus you can chain a few of them throughout the day to create even greater success.
For example, you may have heard that because of our sedentary lifestyles, it’s important to do 10,000 steps a day. But who has 2 hours of free time to do a moderately intense walk every day?
But, you could add a little distance to your daily activities instead:
- Park further away when you go shopping and doing errands – it’ll have the added benefit of not fighting/waiting for a parking spot
- Get up and pace at your desk while on the phone
- Take the stairs for a floor or two instead of the elevator or escalator (You also might avoid Bill Murray screaming, “aaaahhhh!”)
And none of this has to be all at once, it can be spread throughout your day. It’s cumulative small baby steps that will add to huge results.
Did you know that 10,000 steps a day, over the course of a year equals 40 pounds off of your midsection?
Take that with the added benefit of not arguing with rude angry drivers about who got to the vacant parking spot first. To me, that’s a huge bonus.
Baby Steps, the Brain, and Being Afraid
Your brain is an amazing piece of equipment that you have at your disposal. Not only that, but compared to the rest of your body, it’s been constantly evolving, improving, and protecting you.
But, even with all of that, it’s still not completely up to speed for the 21st century.
As an over-simplification, your brain is actually 3 brains in one. You have the brain stem, also known as the reptilian brain. It’s the oldest part of your nervous system. It controls the automatic bodily functions; breathing, heart rate, and sleeping.
On top of the brain stem, you have the mid-brain, the mammalian brain. Here is where you experience emotions and the survival mechanisms of freezing, fight, or flight. This is the “Thinking Fast” part of the brain from Nobel-prize winning writer Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking, Fast and Slow.
The third part of the brain and the youngest is the neo-cortex. This is the “Thinking Slow” part where rational thought and creativity resides. It allows you to learn from the past, plan for the future, and stumbles or side-step you out of the present.
Can you say, “mindfulness meditation” to get you back to the here and now?
Your brain, while a miraculous and marvelous piece of machinery, has one huge problem.
The 3 parts of the brain don’t always play well together, especially the midbrain and the neocortex. They’re not on the same page and like all relationships, have a hard time communicating.
And that’s where you stumble with your NYR, BHAG, and other silly acronyms that try to get you to tackle big change.
Dr. Kahneman’s research points out that you often use poor judgment when making decisions. Furthermore, the problem is compounded by optimism, overconfidence, and loss aversion. These 3 issues factor greatly when you, in the height of celebrating the new year, make goals, plans, and dreams that are unreasonable.
Garth Algar, the Amygdala, and the 3 F’s of Fight, Flight or Freeze
Not unlike Garth Algar, from the movie Wayne’s World, we all fear change. In fact, change can sometimes make Garth, and you, go ballistic as seen here.
But that’s not you, or Garth, that’s the amygdala.
The amygdala of the midbrain evolved about 300 million years ago. As you can imagine, it was a different world back then for your ancestors. The world was a dangerous place; tigers in the bushes, other tribes trying to kill you, and the constant threat of starvation if you couldn’t find food.
And while today’s world might seem as scary as all that, it really isn’t for most people.
But your body can’t tell the difference.
That’s why you freak out when:
- Your boss tells you that you did a lousy job
- That irate driver is screaming at you from his car
- The news is forecasting massive layoffs
Whenever you hear the smallest negative news, your Chicken Little amygdala is screaming in your ear, “The sky is falling! The sky is falling!”
And when that happens, your brain immediately defaults to one of three reactions:
- Tighten up your hands to punch and fight your stupid boss
- Or, run away, run away in flight from the angry driver
- Or, curl up in a fetal position and freeze from the bad news in the media and how you’re going to pay your bills
That was great 300 million years ago, your ancestors survived and lived to see another day because of the amygdala’s early warning system.
And thank God for that! If your ancestors came face to face with a tiger, you didn’t want them to stop and think about what to do, you needed them to sprint into action before the tiger had a chance to pounce. If they didn’t, you wouldn’t be here right now to read this, literally.
But it doesn’t serve you as well today. In fact, it can get in your way toward creating, positive change. Here’s Dr. Maurer:
The real problem with the amygdala and its fight-or-flight response today is that it sets off alarm bells whenever we want to make a departure from our usual, safe routines. The brain is designed so that any new challenge or opportunity or desire triggers some degree of fear.
The problem isn’t the change but how your brain hamstrings you as you attempt to change.
Small Steps Sneak in Under the Radar of Fear
Change is hard, we’ve established that, but you don’t need to make it harder than it needs to be.
That’s the beauty of baby steps, they sneak in under the radar of the amygdala. They give you the opportunity to create small changes and build some momentum without the fear response kicking in.
Small actions take very little time or money, and they are agreeable even to those of us who haven’t laid up bulk supplies of willpower. Small actions trick the brain into thinking: Hey, this change is so tiny that it’s no big deal. No need to get worked up. No risk of failure or unhappiness here. By outfoxing the fear response, small actions allow the brain to build up new, permanent habits—at a pace that may be surprisingly brisk.
Have you ever tried to get pumped up, motivating yourself to take that first step?
If so, that’s because of your amygdala was not seeing positive change, it was seeing tigers and the enemy tribe. It’s getting itself ready for battle. it’s steeling itself for the battle ahead.
No different than Maoris performing their war dance before a rugby match, they know that a challenge is coming and they know if they don’t mentally pump themselves up, their chances for winning drops dramatically.
But that’s not you. You’re not up for a battle. You’re not competing for the International Cup.
You’re just trying to make your life a little bit better, healthier, easier.
So you don’t need to make it harder, pumping yourself up for the challenge.
That’s where kaizen and small little changes come in to make your life easier. If you feel the need to pump yourself up, the step is too big. Make it smaller, easier, simpler.
How Small is Small Enough?
As crazy as it may sound, better to go with too small than too big.
Too big and you won’t take action.
But, too small and it would be silly to not even try.
Dr. Maurer gives this advice:
…your first actions will be very small ones—so small that you might find them odd or even silly. That’s okay. It’s helpful to have a sense of humor when you’re trying to change your life.
It’s okay to feel silly. That’s the point.
If you feel silly, you’re not afraid, well maybe of possible embarrassment but unlike Bill Murray in What About Bob? we’re not suggesting you take your first baby steps in public.
But it is important to make your steps silly small. It’ll help you to want to take that first step, then the second, and the next and the next after that.
That’s the key.
Make it so you could literally fall forward and take the step.
Isn’t that how we all learned to walk when we were babies?
Walking is nothing more than a controlled-fall forward. If we learned it back then, we can re-learn it again now.
Here are some examples from, One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way:
- Stop Overspending – remove one object from the shopping cart before heading to the cash register
- Begin an exercise program – stand, yes, just stand! on the treadmill for a few minutes every morning
- Manage stress – once a day, note where in your body is holding tension then take one deep breath
- Keep the house clean – pick an area of the house, set a timer for 5 minutes, and tidy up. Stop when the timer goes off
- Learn a foreign language – commit one new word to memory every day. If that’s too hard, practice repeating the same word once or twice a day for a week, adding a new word each week
- Get more sleep – go to bed one minute earlier at night, or stay in bed one minute later in the morning
Are you going to do it? That’s up to you, but it’s certainly easier than the NYR you set for yourself and that’s the point.
Put It on the Mat
In martial arts, it’s all well and good to talk about what you’re going to do but until you put it on the mat, it’s only that, talk. You need to put it in action to see if it works for you.
To that end, to summarize,
- What positive changes do you want to create in your life?
- What would it look like to create that change, how will you know you’ve made the change?
- Make a list of activities you can do toward that change?
- What is the one smallest step you can take that is on the list?
- Take that step. If it’s too hard, make it even smaller.
- Lather, rinse, repeat.
And if you’re ready to take it to the next level?