The #1 Secret to Achieving Lasting Life Change

Are you having trouble achieving your goals? I'll tell you my #1 secret for making lasting life changes: think smaller.

I know what you’re thinking—nobody ever got anywhere by thinking small. Everywhere you look, people are telling you to dream big and reach for the stars. Even I have a blog post about creating bold goals.

I’m still an advocate of big goals, and always will be. Come on, you’re talking to a woman who, with very little cycling experience, decided to ride her bike 100 miles at once—and then did it. (And is planning to again!) What I’m talking about today is not about downsizing your dreams (God forbid), but rather figuring out a foolproof way to get there.

I know you’re skeptical. You’ve had the goal of “lose 20 lbs” on your resolutions list for like seven years running. If you’re tired of failed resolutions or overwhelmed with your gargantuan goals (which I’m proud of you for making, by the way), I have one word for you: Microresolutions.

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What are microresolutions?

Microresolutions, a term coined by Caroline Arnold in her book Small Move, Big Change, are small, targeted actions designed to fill a specific need exactly and deliver benefits immediately. Essentially, they are the smaller actions that lead up to your bigger goals. Let me break that down for you.

A microresolution is not something abstract, like, I don’t know, “keep my house clean.” (This may or may not be a personal example.) A microresolution is something specific, like “do not go to sleep with dishes in the sink.” (Ok, it is a personal example.) By taking that small action and making it a habit, I am that much closer to having a house that my mother would be proud of (a girl can dream). Once your microresolution becomes second nature, you move on to the next one. Each microresolution compounds on the next one to add up to develop the many habits you'll need to get the big things accomplished. Before you know it, you’ve reached your goal!

Why microresolutions?

Microresolutions work by breaking larger goals—e.g., lose weight—into much more manageable, realistic steps. Think about the enormity of the goal “lose weight.” No one action results in that huge goal—to lose weight, you need to modify your eating habits, introduce exercise, deal with resistance from your loved ones, and so on and so on. It’s no wonder most people give up before they start to see results! By focusing on microresolutions, you are able to develops habits that help achieve your goals, all while delivering easily wins that help pump you up and build your confidence along the way.

According to Arnold, microresolutions:

  • Focus on doing, not being

  • Remove willpower from the equation

  • Can be performed on autopilot

  • Work over time

  • Foster self-awareness and expose hidden attitudes that thwart success

  • Are easy to keep

  • Should be modified as necessary

Let’s go back to that clean house goal above. There is not one thing that contributes to having a clean house. According to my mother, the floors must be swept, the sink must be empty, the bed must be made, the clothes are put away, surfaces are dusted...you know the rest. Said all at once, it sounds ridiculously overwhelming. But, if these things are done automatically by habit, you won’t have to have a big day when you do everything all at once. “Keeping a clean house” becomes more about doing small maintenance tasks rather than a full-on cleanathon before company comes over.

Are you starting to pick up what I’m putting down?

How to Make Microresolutions

First, think about your big picture goals. What do you want to achieve? Maybe you want to stop running late in the morning, or to lower your monthly spending. Maybe you want to create more intimacy with your partner, or be able to squat your body weight at the gym. Whatever your goal, the process is the same: Identify what specific behaviors will help you get to your goal, and relentlessly repeat that behavior until it becomes second nature.

To help you do that, there are a few rules.

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1 // A microresolution is easy.

To make your microresolution effective, you should pick something simple.

Example: Say you are usually like a human garbage disposal, but now your goal is to eat less food. Instead of obsessively portioning out everything you eat, which will completely disrupt your life in ways you will resent, try trading in your large plates for smaller ones, which will automatically force you to put less food on your plate.

2 // A microresolution is an explicit and measurable action.

As Arnold states, a microresolution is not “a wish, a philosophy, or a result; its straightforward purpose is to build, change, or eliminate a specific behavior or attitude. The more explicit, the easier it will be to measure success, identify obstacles, and fine-tune your commitment.” For best results, decide when and where you will complete the action, either contextually (triggered by an action or situation) or on a calendar (triggered by a date or time).

Example: Let’s say my goal is to ride my bike more, and to do that, I’ve identified that riding my bike to work would help reach that goal. Riding your bike to work requires several things, among them waking up earlier than normal and packing a bag of toiletries and work clothes, both, for me, quite a hassle. If I say I will ride my bike to work once a week, which sounds specific but is actually fairly abstract, I am likely to keep putting off that “once a week” until before I know it, it’s Friday and I woke up late and aw man, I just didn’t hit that goal. Instead, my microresolution should be explicit and measurable: Ride my bike to work every Tuesday. Hard to ignore that goal, right?

3 // A microresolution pays off up front.

Part of what makes microresolutions so rewarding is that you can immediately get the benefits from doing it. You know that feeling of satisfaction from crossing something off your to-do list? That’s what it should feel like to complete a resolution.

Example: When eating out at restaurants, has the meal ever come out and you thought to yourself, “Whooooaaa that’s a lot of food...I’ll definitely be taking some of this home,” only to realize at the end that you’ve scraped the plate? If you’re trying to eat less, you might make a microresolution to ask the server to bring you a to-go box with your order and box half your entree before you begin eating. Right off bat, you’ve completed your microresolution and scored yourself a quick win. And bonus, a meal for later!

4 // A microresolution is personal.

Your microresolution should be tailored to you. This is not Jackie or Lisa’s resolution, it’s yours. Maybe Jackie falls off the rails and eats too much because she always orders appetizers and desserts when she goes to a restaurant, but that’s not your deal. Maybe your issue is mindlessly eating the whole bag of chips while you’re watching reality tv before bed (no judgment, I promise).

Example: In this case, you would tailor the resolution to you: Turn off the TV while eating.

5 // A microresolution resonates.

This rule applies to the mindset surrounding your microresolution and applies more to contextual actions than calendar-based. Your microresolutions should strike a chord within you and produce a positive feeling. Without that connection, your microresolution will be hard to adopt...and frankly, why would you? Be sure to frame your microresolution in a way that appeals to you or encourages you to act.

Example: Say you and your partner have been out of whack lately, and you’re starting to feel more like two separate entities than one couple. If your overall goal is to create more intimacy with your partner, one of your microresolutions may be to establish a “date night” to get the magic back. Instead of saying “have a date night once a week,” try framing your resolution in the specific and positive: “Experience a new restaurant with my partner every other Friday.

6 // A microresolution fires on cue.

A successful microresolution should become second nature, a habit you do without thinking, such as saying “you’re welcome” in response to “thank you,” or saying “bless you” when someone sneezes. To lessen the burden of remembering to do your microresolution, identify a cue that will trigger your response. This cue can be contextual or calendar-based.

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Example: If you are anything like me, getting dressed and out the door in the morning can be a challenge. My biggest obstacle, everyday? Finding my freaking keys! They could be in the pocket of the coat I wore the day before, in my purse, on the bathroom sink, anywhere. Looking for my keys each morning almost routinely causes me to miss my bus, which means waiting at least ten minutes for the next one, which leads to not making my train on time, which means getting to work late and potentially getting in trouble with the boss. A lot of stress for something so simple! To help combat this, my resolution could be to put my keys on the hook by the door immediately when entering the house each day. The cue = entering the house. The action = hanging up my keys. The result = not being late to work (well, at least not due to missing keys, at least).

7 // Make no more than two microresolutions at a time, and give them time to stick.

Listen, doing something new is hard, don’t overwhelm yourself. This is actually where most people fail at their resolutions—you know the people who resolve to lose weight and say that beginning January 1, they’re going to go to the gym every morning at 5:30 am to work out, they’re not eating carbs, and they’re also quitting alcohol—all at once. How long do you think that will last? The magic in microresolutions is that they are baby steps that add up to make one giant leap. As one of my favorite quotes goes, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” I know you want to get results now...part of the beauty in microresolutions is that you can feel like you accomplished something while you’re on your way to self-improvement.

Also, you need time to work on your microresolution for it to become autopilot.  When you have that down pat, you can work on your next one. In general, Arnold notices that resolutions that are practiced daily need about four weeks to stick, while less frequently performed microresolutions require eight weeks. Of course, it’s all personal!

In addition, microresolutions should be fine-tuned. If you’re noticing that your microresolution is not sticking, examine why that is. A personal example: I am an avid vitamin taker. My goal is simple and straightforward—take my vitamins daily. When I worked from home, it was easy to take my vitamins from their individual bottles in the morning as part of my daily routine. When I began to work outside the home and found myself perpetually late, I often ran out the house without taking the vitamins because I just didn’t have time to sit there and open each jar. So I made a new microresolution to put all of my daily vitamins into one container the night before, which would cut down on time spent in the morning. Guess what...I still didn’t take them! That extra step of going into the kitchen when I knew the bus was coming in T-30 seconds was again just too much. So, I fine-tuned again: Put all of my daily vitamins together each night and put them on my bedside table next to a glass of water. Now, the first thing I do when I wake up before I begin my day is to reach over and take my vitamins. To date, I haven’t missed a morning yet. Goal achieved!

“A microresolution should succeed every time. If you aren’t succeeding, rethink, reframe, reschedule, and rescope your resolution until you can put a ring on it.”

8 // Keep your resolutions in scope.

Although Arnold alludes to this concept, she doesn't specifically outline this as a rule. However,  I think it's important enough to single out. What keep your resolutions in scope basically means is a) don't bite off more than you can chew, and b) don't start feeling yourself after you’ve done your microresolutions a few times and start adding on to your commitment. Wait until it’s a full-on habit before you upscale. To refer back to the example from above—if I’d felt so good after riding my bike to work that one day, I might have decided to ride my bike to work every day. That's great! However, you shouldn't feel obligated to act beyond your initial commitment until that simple commitment becomes a habit. Until riding at least once a week became a habit, feeling like I have to ride everyday would’ve been too much for me to chew, resulting in disappointment with myself and likely abandoning the whole thing.

Conversely, if I'd never ridden a bike before, or never more than a few laps around the block, riding the twenty-mile roundtrip to work each day would've been way more than I could handle at that time. So, like I said, keep it in scope, folks.

Microresolutions in Action

You may be thinking that starting small will net you small results, but you couldn’t be further from the truth. Admittedly, in most cases, making and achieving microresolutions is not going to be a quick fix for your bigger problems. However, by developing these small habits that you perform on autopilot, you foster long-term change, which is far more valuable than the quick, but short-lived results you may get from trying (and likely failing) to do everything at once. Microresolutions—which, at their core, are just commitments to form a habit—build on top of each other to create behaviors that help you reach your goals.

As Will Durant stated, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Basically, the secret to being something is doing something repeatedly. If you’ve ever wanted to be that person who works out, that person who has her diet under control, that person who just has her life in order...start small!

Final Thoughts

Microresolutions have literally changed my life and helped me achieve feats I didn’t think I ever would. They were the key to losing over 40 lbs, riding my bike at least 1000 miles per year, traveling more, and so much more. Is there anything in your life you feel like microresolutions can help you achieve? Let’s talk about it in the comments!