We all have things about ourselves and our lives that we’d like to change or improve. A study published last year showed that less than three percent of Americans meet all four markers of a healthy lifestyle (regular exercise, healthy diet, low body fat percentage, and not smoking). I would guess that most of us know we need to eat better, exercise more, and quit smoking, but change is hard. Though setting ambitious goals might cause us feel energized at first, lofty goals can make change even harder. We have an idea of where we want to end up, but we don’t know how to get there, or we get overwhelmed along the way and give up.
Though it’s counterintuitive, sometimes doing almost as little as possible can be just what we need to make big changes. Our brains get stuck in trigger-reward habit loops, and the surest way to break a habit is to replace it with a new one. Tiny successes can cause a release of dopamine in our brains that makes us feel good and helps us to keep going. When we set very small regular goals for ourselves, we are more likely to meet them and keep going. Plus, getting started can be the hardest part, and it’s much easier to get started when the first step is a small one.
The next time you want to accomplish something, try to define the smallest step you can take toward your goal. Then ask yourself, “Can I just do that?” As an example, let’s say you would love to run a marathon someday, but you’re out of shape, and fitting several hours of training into your daily schedule seems impossible. You might start by asking, “Can I just run for 30 minutes per day?” But that, too, might feel overwhelming — it isn’t small enough. So you ask, “Can I just run for one minute a day?” You might be wondering how running for only one minute could ever get you ready for a marathon, but the point is to set goals you absolutely, positively know for sure that you can achieve, without exception. Once you run for a minute, you’ll likely keep running for two, three, five, or ten. But setting a one-minute goal takes away all of your excuses. Even on super busy days, you can make time to run one minute.
Additional examples of “Can I just…” goals:
- Can I just save five dollars a week?
- Can I just meditate for two minutes a day?
- Can I just talk to one person at the networking event?
- Can I just write one paragraph a day?
- Can I just wake up five minutes earlier?
- Can I just incorporate fresh fruit into my breakfast?
- Can I just go for a walk around the block?
- Can I just read two pages of a book before I go to sleep?
- Can I just wait to check Facebook until after I’ve brushed my teeth?
These goals don’t require a lot of willpower, that exhaustible resource that can get depleted early in our days as we make numerous decisions. They’re easy to achieve, and they can become keystone habits that lead to significant change throughout your life. Give it a try: Can you just come up with one tiny goal for yourself?
For more on habit formation, check out Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.
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