When it comes to building better habits, small changes set the stage for much larger ones. However, once you're moving and have a goal, small steps matter less and less — especially if they hold you back. In this post, we'll look at when "every little bit" is actually beneficial, and when it's more of a hindrance than a help.
Little Steps Create A Motivation Snowball
It's important to remember that with health, fitness or diet, any change that improves your life is a good one. If you're doing nothing, doing something is the first important step towards living a happier, healthier life.
For example, parking further from the office and choosing the stairs instead of the lift won't get you in shape, but if you're sedentary and get no activity at all, they're good starting points. Similarly, some changes, like getting even a short walk in every day or making sure you get a few extra hours of sleep a night can have huge benefits.
Here are some other examples of when those small, little changes really do help:
- When the payoff is huge for the effort you put in: Sometimes those "little things" actually have a huge impact. For example, considering how much soft drink we all consume, a small change like switching to tea instead can make a huge difference. While there's no guarantee it will be worth it for you, it's at least worth trying.For example, we've discussed studies that revealed a little walking every day can have huge benefits , even if it's your only activity. If you pick the right "little things", their payoff can be huge — as long as you don't spend more time looking for little things or combining little things hoping for a big payoff than you would spend on something more substantive.
- When you're getting started: Motivation is important, and "little things" help build it. We mentioned this when we explained how to get into an exercise routine you'll actually stick to . Too often we set our sights too high and make big changes for big results right out of the gate. If we don't get discouraged immediately, we burn out, flip a table, give up, and return to our bad habits. That's where small, manageable steps come in. Sometimes starting slow — even so slow that you're dubious you're doing anything at all — is just the thing you need start building better habits. After all, it might be one of those small steps, like a short walk after work or brown-bagging your lunch instead of eating out, that means the difference between having some healthy habits to feel good about versus none at all.
- When you're building momentum: Once you're motivated, momentum comes next. Remember, "little things" don't have to be fixed habits, like walking up the stairs or eating from smaller plates . Getting even a 5-10 minute workout in at the gym may not sound like it will do much for weight loss, but it's the gateway you need to build a long-term, sustainable habit. Then the momentum kicks in. You'll spend more time and energy in the gym, you won't shy away from harder workouts, and you'll see bigger results and feel your progress. "Every little bit" has a tendency to snowball into bigger, more drastic things, and that makes them infinitely more valuable than trying to jump into the deep end right away.
- When the alternative is unacceptable: The other time "every little bit helps" is when the alternative is to do nothing, break a good habit, or give up entirely on a good thing. You know those days: When you take it easy at the gym and tell yourself that it's better than having not gone at all, or have the salad instead of the fries. Those may be small, and they may not add up to anything significant in the grand scheme of things, but they're still victories, and the alternatives are even worse options.
Long story short: "every little bit" does more to put you in the right mindset than it does to make measurable change. Will you lose weight, reduce your risk of inactivity-related diseases, or get in shape by choosing the salad when you eat out, and then parking far from the door when you get back to the office? Probably not, but if it's part of a pattern of healthy habits that cascade into one another, do it and feel good about it. At the end of the day, every small step — even if it's minuscule — is one more data point in an ever-growing set of healthy choices.
Little Steps Are No Excuse For Copping Out On Real Changes
Of course, there are other cases when every little bit really doesn't help. Worse, they fool you into thinking that doing something good excuses bad behaviour, or that one good habit outweighs a dozen bad ones. You might recognise this as the "diet coke with your value meal" effect — where we let one healthy decision offset other, really bad ones.
Similarly, because some small steps have huge benefits, it can be tempting to hunt for the little things instead of making real changes to improve your health. Diminishing returns kick in and you spending more time and energy digging for quick fixes, "hacks" and easy outs than you would on setting up something consistent. For example, every little bit doesn't help:
- When you're already on your way to your goals: If your goals are in sight, and you're already making strides, it's more important to keep that progress going than it is to derail the work you've done in favour of a quick fix. Once you've done big important things, like making exercise a habit or starting to cook for yourself at home, it's OK to give yourself a break from time to time, but a "break" or a "good enough for today" step shouldn't come at the cost of your progress — or your motivation. Instead, it should be a "planned" failure, or a small step that keeps your momentum up — not something that sets you back.
- When it's a distraction from a better change: If you spend so much time digging for quick fixes or "every little bits" that don't add up to your goals, you're wasting your time. In a great piece at Fitocracy (and a longer follow-up at Evidence Based Fitness), Bryan Chung MD, PhD explains that just because some "natural" remedies are purported to regulate blood sugar, taking all of them at once may seem like a great, quick fix for a serious problem. It's actually a terrible idea. You could try them all and never see the results you would have seen with diet, exercise, or a talk with your doctor. He explains your blood sugar may be better, but there's a point where better isn't enough — especially in the absence of better techniques with proven results. This is important to remember: small steps can build momentum, but they can't be the main drivers of change. With health and fitness, you're in for the long haul. Be patient with yourself.
- When it saps your precious willpower: In the same vein as being a distraction, sometimes those little things sap your precious willpower. If you spend it all on little things with no results, you won't be inspired to make bigger, more beneficial changes. Chung explains that the same energy you use to, for example, demonize carbs and cut them all out of your diet, is the same energy you spend making sure you get to the gym on a regular basis. Trying to do them both and draining your willpower — one of which may not even make a real difference — ties up energy you could use to make better changes elsewhere, or to recover when you stumble. Remember, it takes energy to show self-compassion too and self-compassion is more important than almost anything else. If you get demotivated and throw the baby out with the bathwater, those "every little bits" are ultimately meaningless. Keep some fuel in the tank. You need it.
Sometimes little things can even have big payoffs , and it's important to identify the things that will have the biggest benefit for the amount of effort you put into them. However, you shouldn't shy away from the hard things just because they take more effort.
Similarly, you shouldn't let those "little things" be at the cost of your goals. For example, if your goal is to lose weight and reduce your risk of illnesses, switching to diet coke while steering clear of the gym and spending every waking hour behind a screen probably won't get you there. It's a success, sure, but it should be part of a bigger strategy that gets you where you want to be — otherwise that little thing really didn't help at all, did it?