With the New Year upon us, many people are diving into resolutions for 2021. If smashing goals is your superpower, feel free to skim this. But for those who struggle with follow-through, there is good news: we’ve been doing it wrong! Whether you are trying to exercise more, meditate daily, or eat hyper-local (like eating more delicious home-grown sprouts), use the power of science to become a Habit-Changing Hero!
So let’s start with the basics: What is a habit?
Scientifically speaking, a habit is a neural pathway that is used frequently, leading to automated behavior. This means that you’ve repeated an action so much that you don’t consciously think about it anymore. Studies have shown that habit formation actually takes place in a different part of the brain than conscious memory, and people who lose their memories still retain old habits and the ability to form new ones. Pretty cool, right?
Why do habits matter?
According to the Harvard Business Review, up to 95% of our behavior is habitual. We don’t know about you, but we sure don’t want to leave 95% of our lives up to chance. Unfortunately, behavior change can be difficult. Have you ever set a goal, been very dedicated for a week or two, and then lost steam? It’s disheartening to say the least, but it’s not entirely our fault; the setup is destined to fail. It’s the metaphorical equivalent of trying to ship boxes across the country without a solid network of roads and highways. Sending trucks into the wilderness and hoping for the best might work for a few days, but sooner or later you are going to come to a river, a forest, impassable mud, or simply run out of gas—not the best scenario. So exactly how do we gain agency over our habits and, by extension, our lives?
This is where microstepping comes in.
Microstepping is a proven habit-formation technique that involves breaking down your goal into its smallest component part, and then repeating that “microstep” daily until you build a strong neural network. It is the neurological equivalent of building a highway for your trucks. Just follow these 5 literally-couldn’t-be-easier steps to make 2021 your best year yet.
Step 1: Identify your goal.
Maybe you want to run a 5k, start reading more novels, become more mindful, eat healthier, or get your finances in order. Ideally, pick something that brings you joy, excitement or a sense of achievement (this makes it more likely you will stick with it). But don’t worry, this technique works even with goals that you’re less than thrilled about. A lot of goal-setting advice emphasizes that your goal should be measurable and achievable. We endorse this, though it is possible to microstep a vague aspiration as well.
STEP 2: Break it down.
What is the tiniest baby step towards my goal? The itsy-est component part?
If my goal is to exercise every day, maybe my microstep is one push-up. If I want to be more mindful, my microstep could be a daily 30-second mediation. For a healthier diet, how about adding a handful of sprouts to each dinner?
STEP 3: Link it up.
Next, be sure to link that microstep to something you are already doing. Do one push-up when you get out of bed in the morning. When you pour your coffee, meditate for 30 seconds. When setting the table for dinner, sprinkle a handful of microgreens on your plate. This provides a “trigger” so that your brain and body begin to associate your target behaviour with an established part of your routine.
STEP 4: Rinse & repeat.
Now repeat your microstep every day for a month. This builds the neural pathway and creates that “highway network”. So instead of trying to push a truck through the mud, you’re laying the pavement. Don’t force yourself to do any more than that micro-goal. You risk burning yourself out before you’ve built your road! (What about the “rinse” part of “rinse & repeat” step, you ask? There isn’t one––we just like how it sounds.)
STEP 5: Level up.
After you’ve done your new micro-habit every day for a month, you’ve got a highway built and you can start increasing your daily goal. But don’t try too much too soon. Baby steps is still the name of the game. And on tough days, remember that doing just the micro-goal is still winning!
Pro-tip: More likely than not, somewhere along the line you’ll miss a day. You’ll forget, or regress and somehow it’s tomorrow and you didn’t do your thing. The important thing is to not beat yourself up about it! You’ll risk throwing in the towel and all your work will be for naught. So instead, remind yourself that off-days are part of the process, reassess if you have really broken your goal down into the smallest microstep possible (if you haven’t, make the step smaller). Then recommit to your micro-habit tomorrow.
Science tells us that we are more likely to stick with goals when we are publicly accountable.
What’s your resolution, and what baby steps can you take to get there? Let us know in the comments.
Happy New Year, and happy habit-changing!