Why Small Changes Can Have Big Benefits

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“No!!! Noooooo!!!!” my 2-year-old screams as I wrestle him into his snow pants. In the past month, getting out the door in the morning has become an epic battle. Mittens seem to fly off the moment they go on and legs kick in protest.

At first glance the logistical goals of a morning routine seem simple--breakfast in, warm clothes on, and out the door. Yet achieving these outcomes with a two-year-old can be far from simple.

With power struggles mounting, I decided I needed to improve efficiency. I got breakfast ready the night before, made sure that I gave clear choices as we got ready to go, and pushed the train forward. I mapped out my game plan with the precision of an experienced engineer.

Alas, none of this had the desired outcome on the mitten front.

Then I made a minor change to the routine. One morning, jammies still on, my son and I nestled into his bed and read two short books before the day began. Something shifted. It wasn’t until we were out the door a few minutes early that morning that I realized we had emerged from the house fully outfitted in boots, snowpants, and mittens. Hardly a tear had been shed. Was this a miracle?

Small changes in the right places.

The more likely explanation was that I had inadvertently stumbled upon a keystone habit.

In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg writes, “Keystone habits offer what is known within academic literature as ‘small wins.’ They help other habits to flourish by creating new structures, and they establish cultures where change becomes contagious.”

Research on keystone habits is fascinating. When people habitually exercise, they tend to start eating better and become more productive at work too. Starting a tradition of family meals can boost children’s grades and strengthen their emotional control.

Small changes in the right places can have cascading effects.

Choose your change carefully.

While New Year’s tends to be the time when we map out the things that we would like to change in our lives, many of us make goals year round. Too often, we charge forth with unbridled enthusiasm, charting a lofty course for our new lease on life. In our gusto for huge change, we forget to pay attention to the many small, but powerful levers in our lives. Keystone habits can certainly be hard to identify. In retrospect though, they can be obvious.

Take my morning routine, for example. My son wasn’t eager to jump into his snowpants all of a sudden because of a specific book. Instead, reading stories was an opportunity to connect with him, which also happens to be the primary way children regulate their strong emotions. By connecting first, I was priming my son’s brain with feelings of calm and security so that he could handle the out-the-door routine ahead.

The two minutes that changed everything.

A well-respected teacher in the Twin Cities, Tom Cody, shares a similar story involving high school students. Partway though his career, Tom Cody realized that he needed to do more to prioritize connection in the classroom. He didn’t reorganize his entire curriculum. He made a small keystone habit change.

Instead of spending the two minutes before the bell rang behind his desk preoccupied with the day’s lesson, he moved to the doorway and greeted every student by name as they entered. We know from a mountain of evidence that connection unleashes learning so we shouldn’t be surprised to hear that Tom now describes the two minutes before the bell rings as the most important time of the day. He sees cascading positive effects in classroom performance.

Five ways to get started:

  • Prioritize connection. We human beings are wired to connect. Look for simple ways to connect with your kids every day. Make it a routine and watch the effects cascade.
  • Don’t forget about your body. As researcher James Prochaska says, “Exercise spills over.” Moving your body, getting rest, and improving nutrition have ripple effects.
  • Reflect. Doing the same thing over and over without results is a recipe for setbacks. Look at the big picture to discover what might you be missing? What else could you try? Are there emotional or physical needs that aren’t being met?
  • Don’t work on everything at once. Even if the changes are small, tackling ten keystone habits is too exhausting. Pick one or two and focus on habits and process more than outcomes.
  • Learn about your brain. Understanding the brain science of behavior change can work against feelings of personal failure (“I’m just not strong enough to do this.”) and help you build on your strengths (“I need to take care of my prefrontal cortex by sleeping enough so I can really practice these new habits.”)