According to a recent HBR article by business coach Sabina Nawaz, “It’s great to dream big, but the way to achieve big is to start small…By breaking down an ambitious job into smaller, more achievable ones that you build over long periods of time, micro habits help you complete big goals.” She believes executives often struggle to engineer change in themselves—and, in turn, their organizations—by following the typical high-achiever’s mantra of “go big or go home.”
If this sounds familiar, read on for her tips on small steps you can take to realize big improvements:
Identify a “ridiculously small” micro habit
Nawaz recounts her own personal goal of becoming a runner, in which laying out her gym clothes morphed to actually going to the gym to walking on the treadmill to, two years later, the completion of her first 10k race. Telling readers, “You will know you’ve reached the level of a micro habit, when you say, ‘That’s so ridiculously small, it’s not worth doing,’” she stresses that starting small can make “formidable objectives suddenly become achievable.”
Piggyback on a daily task
Incorporating a new micro habit into an existing task can help ensure you don’t forget, make excuses, or get distracted and fail to complete it. For example, if your micro habit is to meditate briefly each day, make it a part of waiting for the subway or riding the elevator up to your office.
Track your progress
As with any initiative, measuring progress is key. But Nawaz cautions, “If your measurement process is elaborate, you’re less likely to complete it.” Rather than coming up with a detailed way of tracking progress, consider a basic spreadsheet listing the desired action, date, and whether or not it was completed. It may seem simplistic, but Nawaz alludes to executives she’s coached who have discovered patterns about when they are likely to advance or regress in their efforts by reviewing their “Yes List.”
Don’t get big too quickly
Nawaz writes, “You’ve stuck with your original micro habit long enough when you feel bored with it for at least two weeks in a row.” Even then, she recommends only increasing it about 10 percent to avoid getting overwhelmed and ultimately reversing your progress.
Seek help in holding yourself accountable
Approach accountability for a micro habit in the same way you would for a “go big or go home” goal, and find a partner with whom you can communicate on the status of your task. According to Nawaz, “The simple act of accounting for not achieving your micro goal can be a motivator—even if it means completing that day’s task right before you communicate.”
While Nawaz’s piece is catered to individual goals, the tips are applicable to broader corporate initiatives as well. For example, if your company has been receiving negative feedback about its culture from employees, resist the urge to launch a full-blown cultural overhaul and instead identify some very small ways in which you can begin to instill a more positive environment. As she puts it, “Jumping headlong into a major goal with both feet is often a waste of time…By starting small, you can attain big results.”