The Science of Starting Small

#boise #idaho #spirit #mindfulness

GPS for the Soul – The Huffington Post
The Science of Starting Small
Starting positive habits and breaking bad ones are two of the oldest and most challenging practices for people. In fact, society seems to be on even more of a habit kick lately, evidenced by the popularity of Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit, and Making Habits, Breaking Habits, by Jeremy Dean. The science and research of habit change and formation is growing rapidly, as people look for ways to gain that crucial edge in an ever-competing world.

Every person has attempted to start a new habit and failed at some point in their life. There are a myriad of reasons why, but one of the biggest reasons we struggle is because our habits are too audacious. There are times we need to establish a big, hairy, audacious goal, or BHAG. But in the case of proclaiming “I want to lose 50 pounds!” or “I’m going to wake up at 5 a.m. every day!” many people end up right where they started.


Maybe it’s precisely because we’re thinking too big. Our failure often lies in the fact we’re not thinking small enough.

One Is Better Than Zero

Let’s do a little personal research, okay? Think of the last time you worked out. Maybe today, a few days ago, or weeks. Rather than beat yourself up over it, try and channel your inner drill sergeant, pushing yourself to “drop and give me ONE!”

“Well that just sounds ridiculous,” is what we say in our minds. But is it really? Consider doing simply one push up per day — it accumulates to 365 pushups a year. Think about that for a moment. Did you do 365 pushups last year? What’s more likely is that when you get down and do one, you think: “I guess I could do one more… one more… one more…” Extrapolate the number to five push ups a day, and you’ve done 1,825 pushups in a year. More than last year? Probably.

Change that to writing, coding, playing music, anything you can do without much preparation or equipment. If I commit to writing just one word every day, I will inevitably write more.

The takeaway is simply to start. The crazy part is the answer becomes obvious! We all know it but fail to act.

Just Start

Doug Lisle, director of research at TrueNorth Health Center, recommended this technique for a woman looking to kick her caffeine habit.

“Go get out your tea, bring it over to the sink while we are talking, and get some scissors,” Lisle said. His patient laughed nervously. “I can’t believe you are making me do this!”

She goes on to cut up the bags and dump the leaves down the drain. Two weeks later, she hadn’t bought any more. Lisle goes on to say that too often we overcomplicate the process of change. We wait for the big inspiration, lowest of lows, a turning point, and never actually begin. Starting small help build momentum for bigger changes.

Your Goals Are Too Big, Even the Small Ones

BJ Fogg is the director of research and design at Stanford’s Persuasive Technology Lab. He’s the guy who asked people to floss one tooth a day for a week. Like one push up, that sounds ridiculous. But Fogg emphasizes you must only floss one tooth every day for a week, and afterwards congratulate yourself. Why?

You must declare victory. Like I am so awesome, I just flossed one tooth. And I know it sounds ridiculous. But I believe that when you reinforce yourself like that, your brain will say yeah, awesome, let’s do that.

Do you want to get in the habit of running? Simply put on your shoes. That’s it. For five days.

Fogg calls these tiny habits and has been running thousands of tests with willing subjects. In fact, you can get in on the course by signing up for Tiny Habits. But why limit yourself to such a microscopic act? Fogg’s research has shown that people who start by flossing one tooth last longer than people who floss all their teeth. Why? Because the first day you don’t reach your goal, you feel sad and guilty; and those feelings snowball the same way positive feelings do. In fact, negative emotional feelings tend to elicit quicker, stronger responses than positive emotions, and also are sub-conciously given more attention.

Find Your Anchors

Fogg goes on to explain that one of the main reasons habits fail is because we’re not attaching them to strong anchors. What is an anchor? An action that you take every day, no matter how simple it is. Our most powerful habits. Here are a few examples.

Brushing your teeth
Going to the bathroom
Opening your front door
Feeding your pets
Waking up

The key is to attach your new habit to an anchor, doing it immediately after the anchor habit. Why after? Because then you’re not relying on memory, but piggybacking the automatic behavior, which is already present. It also helps if the anchor is present around the same time each day, which can make meals a little unreliable.

Another important way to strengthen your habit is to design your environment around it. If you want to exercise in the morning, set your clothes out the night before. Place the book you want to read next to the coffee maker.

Quantity is not the purpose early on. The purpose is to train your brain to recognize a pattern of action and reward.

Don’t Be Intimidated

Starting a business is a fantastic goal. But the big picture of any startup business is intimidating. There’s the product, marketing, hiring, and customer service, to name just a few. But once again, how small can you start? Even before you build a product?

The most basic question to ask is: “Would people pay for my product?” Don’t simply ask your friends and family, which normally results in the confirmation bias, or in everyday terms, they’re telling you what you want to hear. In their book Decisive, the Heath Brothers have an even simpler analogy for the confirmation bias: “No one is going to tell you that your baby is ugly.”

So test your product in the market, as simple as you can make it. Eric Ries of Lean Startup fame refers to this as the Minimum Viable Product. Enough to function, but not so developed you’re married to the design and structure. That way it will be easy to pivot when changes need to happen.

So instead of getting worked up over your future IPO, start with one email, one sale, one dollar. You will save lots of time, money, and build a business you know is in demand from the start.

Break It Up!

Many people get stuck in the beginning stage of habit formation, successful with a tiny habit of 10 pushups or one paragraph of writing. But we still struggle with finding the time to work out for 30 minutes or write three pages.

A recent study at Arizona State revealed that breaking up your exercise in to three 10 minute blocks can be more beneficial in lowering blood pressure than one 30-minute session. It helped keep blood pressure steady throughout the day, instead of spiking. A 2011 study by PLoS One showed the time could be even less for children, showing results with intervals as brief as 5 minutes.

The Simple Gym, a fitness and habit formation blog, designed a workout around small blocks of time during your day. Set a timer to of off every 30 minutes. When it beeps, do five pushups, or even 10! When the timer goes off the next time, do 10 squats. At the end of an eight-hour work day, you’ve done 80 pushups and 80 squats! This type of activity won’t get you in the Olympics, but the cumulative effects of small bursts of energy throughout the day have shown to be effective in reducing muscle pain and headaches, while increasing energy and focus.

Practice Small Wins

In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg tells the story of Olympic champion Michael Phelps. Phelps goes through same routine of tiny habits before each training session, and before each race. Each successful accomplishment builds on itself, creating a powerful feeling of self-confidence whenever Phelps enters the pool.

Duhigg calls these small wins, and like Fogg’s tiny habits, encourages readers to celebrate small wins in physical and vocal ways. Allowing yourself to appreciate these accomplishments wires your brain to expect a positive outcome.

In the health care field, researchers showed that a strategy of small wins often produced visible results in their work.

Small wins concurrently marked progress along the way and shifted attention and energies to the next areas of action … In this regard, small wins were easily overlooked. However, their accumulation resulted in noticeable achievements, representing powerful symbolic markers of progress.

What’s a small win you can celebrate each day? Duhigg suggests making your bed, citing research that correlates bed-making with better productivity, a greater sense of self, and even sticking to your budget. It what he calls a keystone habit, and though they seem small, are the building blocks of widespread change.

Do One Thing at a Time

One habit we all need to break is our addiction to multi-tasking. When we spread out our brain processes across multiple tasks, it actually takes us more time, and our performance drops. In fact, Rogers and Monsell showed (1) the effect could result in four times as many mistakes!

Multi-tasking is simply our brain creating the illusion of getting things done, because we just get a little done on lots of tasks and struggle to finish just one of them. It splits the brain and creates “spotlights” on different tasks, and your brain has to frantically switch back and forth.

In an effort to think small, focusing on a single task feels incredibly limiting. But breaking down a large task in to small wins, you’re able to finish quicker and be more productive. After you rewire your brain, you’ll find you can get a lot more done with both spotlights shining on a single task.

Leo Widrich, CMO of social app Buffer, wrote an illuminating post on multi-tasking. For now, try and work on one task at a time, no matter how frustrated you feel. Keep one browser tab open, plan out your daily tasks, and maybe even turn your internet off for a while.

Have you seen small habits snowball in to big successes in your own life? Do you believe tiny habits are simply too microscopic? What are some other tactics you have used to initiate habit change?


1. Rogers RD & Monsell, S (1995) Depth of processing and the retention of words in episodic memory Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 124(2): 207 – 231

For more on emotional intelligence, click here.

For more by Matt Ragland, click here.

Healthy Living – The Huffington Post
5 Secrets to Looking Confident While Speaking in Public
2013-10-07-NikkiStoneJohnHancockSpeech4.jpgPhoto courtesy of Nikki Stone.

If you break out in a cold sweat or even feel butterflies when you think about standing in front of others for a presentation or interview, you are not alone. Fear of public speaking is estimated to affect 75 percent of adults. Rethinking the way we perceive stress may actually improve our physical and mental performance. It may be easier to give in to our fears, but you will accomplish much more in life and feel a greater sense of pride for facing them.

For some people, with just a little effort they have the ability to conquer these fears. For others, it takes a lot more work and some tips or tools for masking these mental pressures. I understand the need for these tools all too well because I myself was an honorary member of the latter set of individuals and worked tremendously hard to make it look like I’m a member of the former.

In the past 19 years as a speaker, I’ve found that there are five tools I’ve used to demonstrate the strongest level of confidence when I’m on the stage. Regardless of whether I’m in front of a few business clients or thousands of audience members, these five tips have helped me communicate presentations that I can always be proud of.

1. Get the audience laughing.

In my experience, I’ve found that opening with a joke always starts a speech off in the right direction. It immediately lightens the mood in the room and helps me relax. There is something about looking out in the audience and seeing smiling faces that helps create a bond — particularly if I can get the audience to join me in laughing at myself. Laugh at yourself is incredibly self-deprecating, and if you get others to join you in that laughter, then it creates a level of trust. The laughter allows your attendees to break down the wall that forces them to see themselves as vastly different from you.

2. Focus on people who are nodding.

When you feel like you aren’t connecting with your attendees it can be extremely nerve wracking. And your nerves can be taken to a whole other level if there are people who appear completely disinterested. You can often look out in the audience and find a few people who are nodding along with your story or points. There is a real sense of reassurance when someone is agreeing with you. And the more you focus on these individuals, the more confident you sound. And the more confident you sound, the more people you attract. Part way through your talk, you could likely find a room full of people nodding along with you or sitting on the edge of their seats hanging on your every word. All of a sudden, the nerves are gone.

3. Be expressive with your emotions.

When I first started speaking, I can admit that I was nervous. I watched videos of my speeches and realized that I sounded AND looked nervous. There are times that no matter what you tell yourself to calm your concerns, it just doesn’t work. Anxieties aren’t always the easiest thing to quell. I realized that I was just more prone to tensions when I kicked off my presentations. I often couldn’t stop the tensions, but I found that I could hide them. Playing up my emotions by really getting into the excitement of my story or working to honestly feel the disappointment I had experienced, I was able to mask the jitters. It’s much easier to hide one emotion with another than it is to hide an emotion by suppressing it.

4. Practice, practice, practice.

There are many people that believe that speaking is something you are good at or not. I have learned through personal experience that speaking is something you can build up — but, you have to be willing to put in the time. When I started speaking I realized I needed to work on my skills so I went to 100 different Rotary clubs around the Los Angeles area and offered to speak for free if I could place a video camera in the back of the room. After each engagement, I’d review the videos to see what I could improve. Just as in school, sports and business, the more I practiced, the more confident I was and the better I’d perform. As an aerial skier, I would do my jumps hundreds — if not thousands — of times before I would perform a maneuver in competition. I realized that speaking should be no different. With more and more practice delivering speeches, I could visibly see my performances improving. And you can’t help but gain self-esteem with the more experience you have.

5. Be prepared if you make a mistake.

One of the most important lessons I learned as a speaker actually came from late-night TV. I saw an interview with Johnny Carson and he confessed to preparing a joke that he’d keep on hand if and when he made a blunder. No matter how professional someone is and how long they have spoken, everyone makes mistakes. And the mistakes actually make people appear more human and come across as more relatable. But, when we become uncomfortable with slip-ups and gaffes, then our audience becomes more uncomfortable as well. As I shared in my first tip, laughing at ourselves can put everyone at ease. So try preparing a comment like, “I guess those swan dives off our family loft as a child did have its repercussions.” It helps you suppress some of your speaking fears when you know you have one or two “get out of jail free” cards on hand.

So no matter if speaking is your number one fear or you just want to come across with more confidence, the cold sweats and internal butterflies will soon be a thing of the past.

Motivational Tips and Tools:
As an Olympian, best-seller, inspirational speaker and Biggest Loser motivational expert, I’m often asked for tips, tools, quotes and activities to help people reach their goals. I like to end all of my blogs with short tools that are driven from actual advice I’ve shared.

This week’s tip:

Confidence comes from within and no one can create it for you. You won’t build confidence if you don’t take action. Know that making yourself uncomfortable a couple times will help you feel more comfortable in the same situation forever after. The people who actually look the most awkward are the ones who are afraid to try.

For more by Nikki Stone, click here.

For more on success and motivation, click here.


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