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  • Writer's pictureBarbara Mayfield, MS, RDN, LD, FAND

To create or change habits should you take small steps or bold moves?

Updated: Dec 2, 2022

A young woman is running up steps outside

Habits are a wonderful tool for achieving our goals because they automate the behaviors that are necessary for reaching those goals. The more we can identify and understand the steps it will take to reach our goals, the better equipped we are to create or change our habits accordingly.

Consider the goals you have for your professional and personal life. What habits do you need to create or change to achieve them? Are there habits that are moving you forward and other habits that are holding you back?

Should we create or change habits in small steps or bold moves?

What is a habit you want to create or change? You may wonder… to achieve success, is it better to take small steps or make bold moves as you seek to create or change a habit?

Answer: It depends. In most situations, small steps will add up over time to create big lasting changes. In other situations, to be successful, taking bold action is the best choice. Let’s look at some examples to illustrate the difference.

Small steps can create significant incremental change

Let’s say you have a goal to run a marathon. If you currently do not have a daily running habit, the only way your body will allow you to meet this goal is to take small incremental steps, creating a running habit and over time building up to running 26.2 miles all at once.

Creating new habits is often most successful by taking one small step at a time. Whether it be building a financial nest egg, improving our study habits, or eating more fruits and vegetables, we reach our goals one investment, one study session, or one meal at a time. It’s not particularly glamorous, but it’s effective.

To be successful with small steps takes a bold amount of patience!

Bold moves can eliminate negative behaviors

Changing a negative habit can be accomplished using small steps, however, some negative habits are best tackled by eliminating the behavior entirely. Some examples include potentially dangerous habits such as driving at excessive speeds, chain-smoking, binge drinking, or getting into fist fights.

Achieving these bold moves of consistently driving the speed limit, abstaining from cigarettes or alcohol, or avoiding other destructive behaviors will likely require expert intervention and support to succeed. Asking for help may possibly be the hardest and boldest move we take.

These bold moves of eliminating a behavior are successful when they are viewed as something to be achieved one day at a time. That is why people in recovery can tell you exactly how many days they have been sober. Think of it as taking bold moves in small steps.

Circumstances determine whether to go small or bold

Either approach can be successful for creating or changing habits and your current situation may dictate which one is going to work best. Let’s say you wish to learn another language. You could set aside one hour a day to listen to instruction and practice speaking. Small incremental steps.

Or you may find yourself for an extended stay in a new country and determine that you will only speak the native language while you are there. That’s a bold move that may be challenging at first but will likely help you achieve fluency much more quickly.

Can you think of other situations where a new or changed habit would benefit from being bold?

Bigger, bolder moves might be called for in situations where small steps might not make enough of a noticeable difference to reinforce the new behavior.

Let’s say you have a goal of improving your sleep. One approach would be to make a list of the habits related to improved sleep and adopt each one little by little. For example, start going to bed 5 minutes earlier each day until you reach your target bedtime. This could work, however…

The bolder approach might be to pick a date on which to implement as many of the sleep-inducing habits as possible all at once: an earlier bedtime combined with no electronics, a darker room, quiet, no caffeine after lunch, etc. The combined approach may lead to better sleep more rapidly, reinforcing the new habits.

Why are small steps the recommended approach?

Small steps are more often recommended because they require less effort and energy and are generally more likely to succeed. Success leads to continued effort. Human behavior does not change easily, thus anything we can do to make change easier will lead to greater success.

No matter whether we take small steps or bold moves, both approaches require the first step and continued movement. Sustained action is what makes it a habit.

“Nothing happens, until something moves.” ~ Albert Einstein

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