Small Changes That Lead to Big Results

About a year and a half ago, I had the opportunity to switch up careers. I was teaching philosophy at a couple of Universities in Canada when my wife got a job in upstate New York. Teaching was good, but it wasn’t great -- there was something missing. I realized that a much better application of my skills was in helping people better understand and overcome their work problems, and this ultimately led me to business consulting and coaching.

The jump from academia to consulting wasn’t going to be a small one, so I needed a strategy. If higher education gives you anything, it’s the ability to break down a problem into its component parts and deal with them one at a time. A consulting friend told me that contracts were king. My problem was that I didn’t have any contracts. So problem one - a lack of contracts - led to problem two: how to get contracts.

Most contracts are started through referrals and won through experience. So I needed referrals and experience. I had more time than anything, so I reached out to my network of friends and family and offered them the following: I would give them 15-20hrs worth of work for free if they would give me feedback on my process and three referrals, but only if they felt my work was of sufficient quality to warrant those referrals.

As a consequence, I had more than enough work on my hands. This work gave me the referrals that I needed to open up contract discussions and the experience to show that I was capable of doing the work. I quickly expanded my capacity and was fortunate enough to pull together a team to help handle the new workload.

Sometimes, though, the problems that we encounter are more difficult than simply breaking them down into their component parts--sometimes it takes a whole different level of commitment and grit in order to accomplish a task. For example, maybe you want to learn a new language in order to position yourself for an overseas office, or you’re angling for a new job but you need a certain qualification in order to get there. In both of these examples, it can feel like you’re standing at the base of a mountain that you want to climb. I could trot out the cliche that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, but that isn’t often motivating enough to get you to take that first hundred or so steps.

Here’s where a different strategy takes over: when you’re overwhelmed by a task and have been able to break it down into its component parts, now it’s a matter of taking tiny steps to realize your goal.

BJ Fogg, a Stanford Lecturer and human behavior analyst, advocates using a method he calls “tiny habits”. Committing to a lifetime of flossing our teeth every night, for example, is a bit overwhelming, But committing to floss one tooth--that’s right, just one tooth--is completely manageable. Most people find that flossing that one tooth leads to flossing a mouthful. Once we’ve gotten over the mental roadblock that comes from committing to a really large task, then we find that we can handle a small task that quickly leads into that larger task.

Bringing this back to the language example, committing to learning French or Mandarin can be overwhelming, but we can commit to learning one or two words tonight. Then we’re well on our way towards learning the rest of the language.

Can’t seem to find the time to floss a single tooth or learn a couple words? Fogg has a suggestion for that as well: stacking. Stack a new habit on top of a pre-existing one. Take any activity that you have to do every day, riding the elevator, waiting for the bus, waiting for a meeting to start, anything that gives you 3-5 minutes of spare time, and prepare to capitalize on those spare minutes by being ready to learn a couple words or learn a single concept that will put you in a better position for that new job.

There are plenty of apps that can help with language (Duolingo is my favorite), but sometimes the easiest thing is simply carrying around a book (or eBook) with you. If nothing else, you’ll impress the people around you with your desire to learn more and expand your own skillset. And you never know who’s watching and how they might be able to help you with your career.

One last thing: whenever you take a step, even if it’s just a small one like a new word, make sure you celebrate it. Fogg suggests you say, out loud, “I’m awesome!” Whether you say it out loud or reward yourself in some other way, the key is to reward every step along the way. This helps to keep motivation high because we often lose sight of our progress when we’re too busy thinking about how we haven’t achieved our goal yet.

Good luck with developing your new habits. And let me know if you’ve used this or something else that works for you. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

To sum up:

  • Always break the problem down into its smallest parts
  • Once you have those parts, develop “tiny habits” for long-term growth and progress
  • Stacking one habit on top of another makes it easy to find time to take another step
  • Always reward yourself for every step along the way.

Aaron Massecar 

Aaron is the Owner and Principal of Mass Habit Consulting where he helps organizations develop optimal strategies and habits for success. 

He holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Guelph and has authored one book, co-authored one book, and written 7 journal articles. Aaron has presented at 17 international conferences, and 9 public and professional conferences.