A New Method for Creating Changes that Last

When it comes to the best way to create a new habit, there’s a great schism in the personal development world.

One classic approach is massive action. You go all-in, all at once, and you hope that by sheer force, lots of willpower, and a huge initial surge of motivation, you’ll be able to make your change last.

The other way is the small steps method. Here, you begin with the smallest possible step in the right direction, so small that you can’t possibly put it off for later. Then you repeat it each day, gradually taking on just a little more, and eventually, your change becomes a habit.

The big question, of course, is “Which works better?”

Most people say it depends on the person. That some people change better when they take massive action, and that others need to take it slow.

But I’ve never quite been comfortable with that, because I see both types of people in me — and in just about anyone I’ve talked to about habit change, too.

And after years of messing around with the two approaches, I’ve come up with a method of change that uses both. And it works. In fact, when I look back at just about every significant change I’ve made successfully, I’ve used this method … even before I realized that’s what I was doing.

Before we get into nuts and bolts of method, which connects the massive action and small steps approaches, let’s look at each individually to see where it excels and where it falters.

Approach 1: Massive Action

Massive action is exciting. It’s the Tony Robbins, go-for-it, on-a-mission approach. It’s fun to believe that yesterday you were one way, but that you’ve flipped a switch, and now you’re different. You’re unstoppable.

And the best part is you don’t need to wait. You’re excited about making a change, and you go for it.

And sometimes, it works. It works when the results come so quickly that your motivation just keeps growing and growing, in a cycle that’s downright addictive (in a good way).

A good example is the Engine 2 Diet, where Rip Esselstyn (listen to us discuss this on NMA Radio) encourages participants to go vegan and oil-free for 28 days. When it works — and it clearly does, often — it’s because people notice such quick, drastic, and incredible changes in how they feel and look that they don’t even consider quitting, even if the diet change is demanding. In time, the new way becomes a habit, at which point it no longer feels difficult, and everybody wins.

But when massive action doesn’t work is when the results don’t come quickly and noticeably. Our motivation is high at first, but each day of massive action drains that willpower a little bit more. If the willpower runs out before the new action has become habitual and automatic, then at that point, we break.

This is when you eat the cheeseburger.

Or the day, two or three weeks after starting that new fitness program, when instead of going to gym like you planned, you decide to go to happy hour, and it’s curtains for your new program.

Most people keep trying to change this way, often taking on more and more to make up for the last time. Which only leads to more failure. Eventually, they tell themselves they can’t change, and they give up trying to change at all.

Sad face.

Approach 2: Small Steps

Seeing this, some smart people came up with an alternative. Here, you rely on patience, starting with only a tiny, easy step.

If you want to take up running, you start by running (or even walking) for two minutes. The next day, you do it again, and after a week of this, you increase to maybe five minutes a day. The next week, eight minutes.

Slooooowly, you become a runner.

When the small steps approach works, it works because it’s never hard. Each new step is tiny, and you’re well equipped to handle it because you’ve gotten there gradually. Soon, if you do things right, the new way becomes your habit, where you don’t have to think about it at all.

The catch is that you don’t get to see results right away. If your reason for becoming a runner is to lose weight, you don’t get that in the first month — you’re only running a few minutes a day! The changes that happen in the early going are in your brain; you’re building a habit. So when the volume increases later, and you actually do start burning significant calories, it won’t break you … but that’s a long way off.

Most people don’t have the patience for this method. They can’t resist doing too much, too soon. And even if they can, the results seem are far off that they have little power to pull you along. Eventually, for one reason or another (often it’s just that you forget to take your tiny daily action!) you fall off the wagon.

Small steps is a nice alternative to massive action, but a few years ago I began to sense that it wasn’t quite enough for me. I so love the idea of making changes that I don’t often have the patience to adopt new things gradually. I want to get in there and experiment, see what it’s like, and experience those initial results quickly.

So I wondered: Could there not be some way to get the benefits of both approaches — the initial surge of motivation and momentum that comes as you see early results due to massive action, and the gradual building of a rock-solid habit that comes from taking small steps — while minimizing the drawbacks of each?

The Solution: the Hybrid Method

Ever since I started writing about the small steps approach a few years ago, I’ve been answering the question, “What if I’m more the all-in, all-at-once type?” (Most people, it seems, believe that they are.)

My answer has always been: “Then try it. Take the massive action, go cold turkey, whatever you want to call it. But if it fails, don’t treat it as failure. Treat it as the completion of Phase 1, the massive action phase, then shift to Phase 2, the small steps phase.”

This is the essence of my new approach to change (which I’ll expand upon, in more detail, below).

Although in the past few years I’ve attributed a lot of successful changes to the small steps approach, what I’ve more recently realized is important: all my successful changes were ones I had attempted (and failed) to make in the past with a massive action approach. This isn’t to say the massive action phase is better — it’s to say it’s a necessary first step.

I really think you need both sides if you want to maximize your chances of successfully changing for the long term. The hybrid approach works really well, for several reasons:

  • Sometimes massive action works. When it does, you get quick results and never have to wait for the small steps approach to work.
  • When the massive action doesn’t work, you get the impatience out of your system. You’ve experienced what it’s like to live the change for a few days, but you couldn’t make it last. And suddenly, being patient enough to take small steps doesn’t seem so hard.
  • Best of all: when you fail at massive action and switch to small steps, the contrast makes it feel easier than if you had just started out with small steps. (For example, if “massive action” was running 30 minutes a day, five times a week, and the first small step is running just five minutes per day, making this switch feels easier than going from nothing to five minutes a day.)

So you get the gist: start with massive action, then shift to small steps. But this isn’t quite enough. There are a few seemingly small but crucial distinctions to make, like setting up the first massive action period as a “challenge,” with a fixed end-date. Let’s look at those now.

A Step-by-Step Process for Making Changes that Last

So here’s a more refined, step-by-step set of instructions for using this process. Try it with a change you’ve struggled with in the past, and I think it’s likely you’ll get far better results.

Step 1. Set a start date for the massive action phase.

Setting a start date tells your brain that this is important, not something minor that you can just start again any old time if you fail. (I used to commit to a change in the morning and fail by noon, telling myself I’d start again tomorrow — that’s what you want to avoid.)

Make your start date a few days from now, not more than a week off, but leaving enough time to do some basic preparations and build some accountability. Tell some people what you’re going to do, and commit to a date. (Make sure you actually pick a date and mark it on a calendar; don’t just say, “I’ll start in a few days after I’ve done X,Y, and Z.”)

Step 2. Set an end date for the massive action phase.

Here’s the first way my approach differs from basic massive action. You’re going to have an end-date, so that your change isn’t “forever” but is instead a 10-day or 30-day challenge. This avoids those disastrous “I can never again eat buffalo wings!” thoughts that are poison to your willpower.

And I do think you should call it a challenge, not an experiment. It’s easy to quit an experiment, but you want to actually make it to the end of your challenge.

If 30 days sounds fun and exciting, go for it. If that’s too scary, or if you consider yourself not very good at making changes, start with a week or 10 days.

Step 3. When you reach your end date, congratulate yourself and celebrate, then decide to either do another massive action challenge, or switch to small steps.

Having been successful for one massive action period, decide if you want to commit to another (longer, but still time-bound) one.

If so, great! Go for it. You’ll likely find that you forget all about the next end date as your change becomes your habit.

But what if you decide you want to stop? That’s okay too! You won, you finished your challenge and experienced what the change is like, but you realize you’re not quite ready to do it. You learned a lot. So now, you switch to small steps.

Step 4. Do your next phase: either another massive action period, or shift now to the small steps approach.

Let’s say you’ve been vegetarian for a while, and just completed a 30-day vegan challenge. But by the end, you’re counting down the days until you can eat real pizza again. (This is exactly what happened to me when I tried a 30-day vegan challenge back in 2010.)

So you’ll go back to the way things were before, and eat that pizza you’re craving so badly. But with one exception: What’s the smallest step you can take back in the direction of being vegan, one that will take almost no willpower?

Maybe it’s that you’re vegan until after lunch each day. Maybe it’s one day a week. Maybe you don’t eat eggs anymore, but you’ll still eat dairy. Or maybe cheese is your only non-vegan food (this is more or less what I did after my challenge).

The beauty here is that the contrast works in your favor, because you just finished a 100% vegan month. So instead of it feeling like a difficult task to stop eating eggs, instead it feels like you’re putting more foods back into your diet, because that’s what you’re doing.

But have a plan, just like you would if you were doing only the small steps approach. Maybe you’re just vegan through lunchtime for now, but decide that after a week or two of that (again, actually pick a date) you’ll push it back to 4:00pm.

That’s it!

Seems pretty simple, right? The key is that with each phase, you need to treat it like you would a standalone attempt at habit change — that is, use every trick in the books to try to keep yourself on track. Here are 29 of them. The more you use, the better, and you’ll improve with practice.

Now … change something!

When I look back at the changes I’ve made in my life, nearly every single one of them occurred because of a (completely non-deliberate) process like the one above.

When I first went vegetarian, it was with a small steps approach. But what I often forget is the couple of days a year before that when I tried to jump right into it. It didn’t last more than a weekend, but nonetheless, I think that weekend of massive action was important.

Same thing with going vegan. Then, it was a deliberate 30-day challenge. I succeeded in going 30 days, but by the end realized I wasn’t ready. Over the next few months I approached it more gradually, and soon was completely vegan … and comfortable with it. And four years later, that change has stuck.

The same has happened with eating oil-free — it began with a three-week challenge, and my most recent step was decided not to use it at home. Perhaps eventually I’ll give it up entirely, but I’m not there yet.

It’s not just diet, either. Though not quite as clearly separable into these phases, when I look at how I became a runner, it was jumping right into training for a marathon (massive action) that got me started, but taking small steps (learning proper form, adding in strength training, building a daily running habit) that eventually got me the results I wanted.

This approach works. But I’ve never shared it formally before, so I’ve really been its only test subject … and this is where I’d like your help.

I’m asking you to give this a try. Choose something you’d like to change — could be a new change, or could be one you’ve failed at before — and apply this method. I can’t promise it’ll work — like I said, I’ve only tested it on myself — but it’s a heck of lot better than doing nothing. At the very least, you’ll learn something.

Is there a place in the process where you need more guidance? A modification you have to make to stay on track?

I hope you’ll give it a go, and let me know.

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Comments

  1. This is great for someone like me who likes to jump right in and cling to a new change, even when it’s not quite working out. Instead of giving up or seeing a misstep as a complete failure, I can think of it as switching to small steps and get myself back on track

  2. Incredibly insightful post. I’ve been struggling with this question of how to best catalyze change myself.

    Many experts say they see better results when people jump in 100%, but I’ve always wondered if that is because all they hear are the success stories, where those who didn’t make the 100% leap fall off the radar.

    The research seems to suggest the opposite, that more people see more success through tiny habits, but again that didn’t feel completely right to me either.

    I think the hybrid approach makes sense for a number of reasons, and I’m excited to give it a try. Major breakthrough here! Thanks!

  3. This couldn’t have come at a more perfect time for me ! Thank you !

  4. Matt Rolfe says:

    Good advice Matt. I’ve been (unknowingly) changing for the better for the past two years by mashing up huge goals, with baby steps action to achieve them. We are all ‘works-in-progress’. I’m certain my story is not unique, but since moving to Australia in 2012 I’ve become Vegan (this happened over a 6 month period), run 3 Marathons (most recently Boston, in 3:03:46) and a 250K multi stage Ultramarathon in the Simpson Desert in Queensland. I do not intend to stop huge goal setting. It ‘scares’ me into changing! I’m currently chasing sub-3 hour marathon (actually after sub 2:50) and I’m planning a trip to Chile next year for another desert Ultra. My intellectual goals currently involve teaching myself to read music (a very slow process) and also learning the Cello (another slow process). These goals are all achievable for anyone, if they are broken down into small tasks. Anyway, that’s enough braggadocio for one day ;0). Take it easy and have a great day, keep up the good work; NMA has helped me immensely, I’m sure it helps others too!

  5. Jill Reeves says:

    Great advice and I have been tip toeing along trying all of your ideas! Went really vegan for a few days and tonight just had to eat chicken on a salad with Ranch dressing and a piece of dark chocolate for something sweet when I came home. It was like a wicked craving took over and I had to have fat and meat again. I think it’s in my head and not a craving? but I did play 1 1/2 hours of tennis and had done laps and another salad like I had at lunch was not going to cut it. I also was out and not at home cooking. Your blog inspires me and keeps me going. I don’t feel defeated.

    I have another question: What do you think of taking fish oil, Primrose Oil and eating those Barleans fish and flax oils that are flavored (lemon and berry?) I think I know the answer, but should I cut these out too on the oil free diet? Thanks!

  6. MaryEllen says:

    I agree… I need this right now! 😀

  7. Excellent advice – and it avoids the dreadful guilt you feel when you try something and fail miserably. I’m working on transitioning back to vegan using small steps at present, but getting there. For me the basic small steps work but after a certain time I’ll go for the massive attack – kind of the other way round from what you are saying here, but it works for me.

  8. Love this Matt! One of my favourites!

    Looking back I think that’s kinda how I’ve experienced most of the changes I’ve tried to make – the diet, the exercise, meditation, morning routine…

    I’d jump in with two feet, and sometimes it would stick. Other times I would fall off the rails, but by doing that I learned what I did wrong and how I could avoid it next time with the small steps approach!

  9. Great post, as usual. Thinking back that’s how I finally became vegan…i’ve been vegetarian for many years and have on and off been vegan, macrobiotic etc…but somehow it never stuck. Then in the past 2 or 3 years I have experimented with going raw, but that seemed to restrictive and after talking to some raw foods people, too cult-like, so now being vegan us easy. Currently doing the oil-free thing, like you at home, but trying outside as well. Helps that we don’t eat out a lot….
    Niw the daily exercisibg is still hard for me, but slowly getting better, my dogs help…
    Thanks for your inspiration!

  10. maureen says:

    Perfect timing! I’m starting a 31 day run running challenge, today. I struggle horribly with consistency, so I’m committing to running at least one mile, every day, in July. I think my longest running streak is 11 days. I posted it on Facebook, and got a few friends to join in, with their own challenges. Bring it!

  11. Thank you for this, it feels like a good synthesis of what I’ve heard you talk/write about over the last year.

    I would agree wholeheartedly with this approach in my own life. Some quick examples – I started and then abandoned marathon training at least twice before now having run three successfully and planning to chase Boston. I recommitted to veganism last fall after a ten-year gap, stopped briefly over the holidays due to family antagonism, and have now been happily 99.9% vegan since the beginning of the year. I started writing again (after using your Wake Up program last fall), managed to talk myself out of it over the winter, and have begun again with better supports in place (have started the Wake Up program again with a better understanding of my true dreams/goals in life). So yes, I am a big fan of both “small steps” and “huge dreams” yoked together.

  12. Great post. My personal experience is after trying massive action approaches for almost any dietary or habit-based change I sought, I’ve found the small steps approach works best for me for creating lasting change. This is how I became a runner, and a vegetarian. However, I found this was possible because my goals shifted too. My focus shifted away from weight loss, and became about the ethical reasons and mind/body balance reasons for making those changes. Creating a daily sense of balance through physical exercise and a plant-based diet is more important than the gratification of immediate change.

    Excited to try this approach to see if I can make the leap to veganism!

  13. I agree… I need this right now!

  14. Great post. I realize now, I did this with 80/10/10. I would go full on for a month, or several months, then dial back and incorporate cooked food, but still make minor changes like cutting out certain offending foods (like legumes, which were causing me digestive issues). My success with it would wax and wane, but I would treat all of it like phases. Eventually, after several years of this, everything just kind of clicked and now it’s easy.

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