How Small Habits Can Lead to Big Changes

The power of taking microsteps.

On April 6, 2007, I woke up in a pool of my own blood. I was two years into building The Huffington Post. A divorced mother of two teenage daughters, I had just returned from a week of taking my eldest daughter on a tour of prospective colleges, and, since she had insisted that I stayed off my Blackberry during the day, I would stay up each night working. And so, the morning after we returned home, I woke up burned out and exhausted — and collapsed. The result was a broken cheekbone, several stitches over my eye and the beginning of a long journey.

In the days that followed, I found myself in a lot of doctors’ waiting rooms, which, it turns out, are great places to think about life. And that’s what I did. I asked myself a lot of questions, like: Is this what success really looks like? Is this the life I want to lead?

The answer was no. And the diagnosis I got from all the doctors was that I had a severe case of burnout. So I got deep into the growing body of science on the connection between well-being and performance, and how we can actually be more productive when we prioritize our well-being and take time to unplug and recharge.

So I decided to make a lot of changes to my life. I wanted to start sleeping enough. I wanted to start meditating again, which I had learned to do as a child. I wanted to change the way I worked so I could be more productive, more focused, more energetic and less tired and stressed.

But making changes in our lives and creating new habits isn’t easy, especially as we approach resolution season: A study from the University of Scranton found that 92 percent of people fail to keep their New Year’s resolutions, and another found that 80 percentwill have already failed by the second week of February.

That’s why at Thrive Global, the company I founded to help people improve both their well-being and performance, our behavior change system is built on the idea of microsteps. These are small, actionable and science-backed steps you can take to make immediate changes in your daily life. It’s the idea that if you make the steps small enough, they’ll become too-small-to-fail. And as research has shown, starting small makes new habits more likely to stick.

People are tired of being sick and tired. They want to work and live in a way that doesn’t overwhelm them. And making even very small changes in our trajectory can, over time, lead us to a very different destination. By making our microsteps too small to fail, we can make those first, small changes on which we can begin to build a new and healthier way of living and working. There’s nothing wrong with aiming big — but we can help ourselves by starting small.

Here are 10 of my favorite microsteps in a handful of areas of life. Each can serve as the foundation for continuing to make more changes in your life.

Pick a time at night when you turn off your devices — and gently escort them out of your bedroom.

Set an alarm for 30 minutes before your bedtime.

 

 

When you think of sleep as an actual appointment, you’re much more likely to grant it the time it deserves. Setting an alarmreminds you that if you’re going to get to bed on time, you need to start wrapping things up.

 

Sit down when you eat, even for a few minutes.

Eating on the run can make us feel like we’re being productive or saving time. But mindless eating while we are multitasking can lead us to consume more calories and is more likely to lead to bloating and indigestion. Make it a meal, instead, and you’ll be less tempted to snack afterward.

Turn a sit-down meeting into a walking meeting.

Instead of sitting in a conference room, try walking with a colleague during a meeting. You’ll be less likely to peek at your devices, and the movement can help get the creative, problem-solving juices flowing.

Turn off all your notifications, except from those who need to reach you.

The more our phone buzzes at us, the more it conditions us to release cortisol, or “the stress hormone.”

Do an audit of your phone’s home screen to reduce time-sapping distractions.

Take just a few minutes to determine which apps you really need to access. Keep only “tools” that add value — not apps designed to consume more of your attention.

Let yourself be bored.

Next time you’re waiting in line, waiting in traffic or waiting for someone who is late for a meeting, embrace it instead of immediately looking at your phone or iPad. Unstructured moments can lead to inspiration, creativity, reflection and connection.

Block time on your calendar to manage your email.

Studies show that it takes an average of 25 minutes to refocus after being interrupted, so setting aside time for email can help you avoid constant inbox distractions.

Set aside a specific time (even 5 minutes) each day or week dedicated to worry time.

Write down or reflect on your worries and concerns. Don’t set any expectations about solving your worries or generating solutions, though you might find that solutions come naturally once you start reflecting.

Declare an end to the day, even if you haven’t completed your to-do list.

Effectively prioritizing means being comfortable with incompletions. Once you’ve handled the day’s essential priorities, recognize that in any interesting job it’s almost impossible to do all you could have done in any one day. By taking the time to recharge, you’ll return to work the next day ready to seize opportunities.

A version of this article appears in print on , Section B, Page 6 of the New York edition with the headline: Microstep Your Way to a Healthier Lifestyle

Our phones are repositories of everything we need to put away to allow us to sleep  our to-do lists, our inboxes, multiple projects and problems. Disconnecting from the digital world will help you sleep better, recharge more deeply and reconnect to your wisdom and creativity.