Micro-Actions for Lasting Change

As we head into the new year, you might be thinking about setting some big goals. Whether you want to eat healthier, exercise more, get your finances in order, or be more organized, January often feels like the time to finally tackle change. But when New Year’s Resolutions have a (sad) history of failure, why do we keep attempting sweeping changes? Perhaps setting your sights on something smaller will lead to bigger results in the long run.

It turns out, small actions such as making your bed or laying out your gym clothes the night before may have a domino effect on the rest of your day. Psychologists have found that small changes are not only easier to replicate every day, but also can lead to other positive decisions. For example, just setting out your clothes for the gym before you go to bed means you’re more likely to actually put them on and go exercise in the morning. After you exercise, you might be more likely to eat a healthy breakfast because you wouldn’t want to undo everything you just did at the gym, would you? Then, the exercise and better breakfast leave you more energized and focused the rest of the day, leading you to make more positive decisions that will keep you feeling great.

Researchers tested this concept, called micro-actions, among college students and found that simple behaviors such as sitting in the front of the classroom, getting up 10 to 20 minutes earlier each day, or writing down assignments in a planner led to better academic performance, among other benefits. Getting up earlier meant they ate breakfast and made it to class on time whereas sitting in the front of the class meant they were more focused. 

Charles Duhig puts forth a similar idea in his book “The Power of Habit.” He describes micro-actions as the keystone habit and by creating this small habit, it can overtime transform everything. 

As you approach the New Year, consider this approach. Choose one micro-action that is reasonable for you. To increase productivity, that might mean committing to using a planner, setting your alarm for 10 minutes earlier, or starting your day with a short meditation instead of looking at your phone. If you’re hoping to eat healthier, commit to grocery shopping, and if you’d like to exercise regularly, set out those gym clothes. You never know, something as simple as making your bed could lead to a day’s worth of positive choices.