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Take One Small Step

footprintsIs there something you know you want to start doing, but you just can’t seem to begin? Whether it’s beginning a new piece of writing or establishing a daily workout routine, sometimes all the rational plans, checklists, and arguments in the world won’t be enough to get you going.

Maybe you know you need to go to the gym, but you never seem to make the time for it. Or you tell yourself that you will start writing that article when you have three hours free, or when your desk is organized, or after you’ve read just one more source. You fully intend to make a big effort, but then you don’t follow through.

Behavioral psychologist Robert Maurer suggests that when we find ourselves stuck, sometimes taking a teeny, tiny step is the best strategy. In One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way, he applies the Japanese philosophy of continuous improvement initially developed in the business world to the arena of personal change and development.

When Maurer recommends a tiny step, that’s really what he means: some of the case stories he offers of patients he’s successfully helped with this method include a woman who started her workout program by simply standing on her treadmill for a minute a day, and people who establish a flossing habit by flossing just one tooth a day. Such tiny steps help tiptoe around whatever is causing your brain to lock up in fear and also begin to create new physical and mental habits. After you’ve flossed one tooth for a month, you’ve developed a habit of flossing, and can easily extend it to more than one tooth.

The biggest obstacle to trying out this small-step approach is that such small gestures can seem futile. We are often enamored of the idea of big change: the 12-hour home makeover show, the essay written in an all-nighter, or the possibility of suddenly becoming a regular at the gym.

One of the most powerful chapters in Maurer’s book offers some key examples of ways to “Ask Small Questions” to encourage your brain to develop small-step strategies that are achievable. For example, rather than simply telling medical clinic patients to change their diet and exercise more, he teaches them to ask themselves questions such as, “If health were my first priority, what would I be doing differently today?” By asking yourself such questions repeatedly over a few days, your brain will start to come up with creative, actionable answers.

Small steps are easy — so easy that many of us will scoff that such an approach can’t possibly work. But even these tiny steps add up. If you wrote one sentence a day, by the end of the week you’d have a paragraph. Even more important, you’d have begun to establish the habit of daily writing.

Why wait any longer to take that first tiny step?

[Creative Commons licensed image by flickr user Ajith_chatie]

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