Ready to Amp up Your Creativity?

An article in 99U offered its readers 10 “creative rituals” used by various creative professionals, including writers, entrepreneurs, and designers. Of course, you don’t have to be a creative “professional” to be creative. Creativity is an approach to being in the world.

And, as the article’s author Sean Blanda says:

Sustained creativity doesn’t come from a flash of brilliance or a single afternoon of inspiration. It comes from a consistent routine that serves as the bedrock for getting things done.

There’s a difference between rituals, routines, and habits. Jack Kerouac touching the ground nine times before writing is a ritual. Writing every day is a habit. “Brainstorming at the bar” (item 9 below) is a routine. There’s value to be had from all of these suggestions, but some are more valuable than others. (Hint: Don’t miss #7.)

#1 Take a Quarterly Vacation

Venture capitalist Brad Feld says that taking a week off every three months with his wife is the most impactful thing he’s done. He leaves his computer at home and turns his smart phone over to his wife for the duration. While away from home, Feld reads, relaxes, sleeps, and generally enjoys himself, returning home refreshed.

Maybe taking four weeks of vacation a year is feasible for you, but even if it isn’t, the recommendation to take time away from your regular work and routines is a good one. The amount of time you spend away isn’t as important as getting away—and really disconnecting when you do.

#2 Hold a “Retrospective” After Projects

Harper Reed (former Obama campaign CTO) said his team relied on meeting at the end of each project to ask what the experience was like, what went right, and what went wrong. They didn’t wait till the end of the campaign to do it; they conducted many such meetings along the way. That allowed them to pay attention to feedback and adjust course.

It may be easier to hold a retrospective meeting with a team, but even if you work solo you can incorporate a reflective activity into your workflow. It’s difficult to identify what’s working and what’s not working if you don’t stop, even briefly, to assess. Another way of using this process is to stretch your thinking by asking those questions near the start of a project or goal from the perspective of having completed it.

#3 Write Every Day

Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild, is a professional writer who also uses writing “as a tool for self-discovery” when she’s trying to work through something or make a tough decision. She believes that “writing forces you to locate your clarity.”

I’m a big fan of developing a writing practice, but I think writing only leads to clarity if you use it deliberately and intentionally. As I wrote in W Is for Writing, “in order to get the best results, you need to be clear from the outset about what you want from your writing.”

#4 Create an “Interesting People Fund”

Writer and entrepreneur Ben Casnocha invests in an “interesting people fund,” which he describes as a pre-commitment strategy. He pre-commits both time and money to meeting interesting people to make it more likely that he’ll actually do it. As he says, it takes time to develop any kind of relationship.

I think that allocating resources (time and money) to cultivate relationships with interesting people can, over time, alter your mental model. You’ll be on the lookout for people who interest you and you’ll get into the habit of reaching out to them to make a connection on more than a superficial level. This may be more important in our high-speed, digitized lives than it has ever been!

#5 Keep “Tear Sheets” to Get Inspired

Designer Sarah Foelske gets stuck once in a while; that’s when she “visits her tear sheets.” (Tear sheets are pages clipped or torn from a newspaper or magazine that show a client’s ad.) She’s saved things she likes or that inspire her, including books, beautiful packaging, or pages from magazines. She finds that getting away from the project she’s working on and flipping through her tear sheets, even if for a few minutes, can spark new ideas.

This is really an inspiration file, so it could take almost any form, depending on what inspires you. There’s such an abundance of new brain and behavior information that my habit is to either bookmark or print copies of the articles that interest me to check out later. That may seem like research more than inspiration, but it’s really both. I often get new ideas from what I read and make new connections, which energizes me—and that, I think, is the point of an inspiration file.

#6 Nap Every Day

News anchor Pat Kiernan takes a nap. Every day. He says he’s “super protective” of his nap and keeps a hard line about it. “You have to learn how to say no.” He wants to be rested and healthy, so he has learned to resist the temptation to do everything he’s invited to do.

There’s a lot of research to support the benefit of daily napping, and I know several people who swear by it. But I confess that I’m not one of them. If a nap during the day recharges you, then take Kiernan’s advice to heart and treat nap time as you would any other important appointment on your calendar. If you’re intentional about making it a habit, you’ll find that much easier to do.

#7 Envision What You Will Be Remembered For

Rapha founder Simon Mottram writes “faux business pieces,” articles for Financial Times or Wall Street Journal as if the company had already accomplished their current goals. In one article, he described how Rapha had revolutionized the cycling market and was “leading more people to discover road racing as a lifestyle and a fundamental part of their lives.” He was very specific about what that looked like and how many customers the company had. Five years later, he says, the article pretty accurately described the company’s reality.

“Envision what you will be remembered for” doesn’t go far enough. This is an example of identifying and visualizing your desired outcome clearly and specifically enough to try it on for size—and to use as a benchmark to tell when you’ve gotten to where you wanted to go. The desired outcome is not the same thing as the goal. A good goal is S.M.A.R.T., but that’s not enough. You have to identify what’s going to be different afterward and what it’s going to feel like and look like—for you and for others. (Essentially, why do you want to achieve this goal or create this thing?) Taking the time to identify your desired outcome is a habit that pays spectacular dividends and one that you can incorporate into planning anything of any nature in any area of your life.

#8 Brainstorm at the Bar

Designer James Victore says he does his “think-work” at the bar and his “work-work” in his studio. He sketches on paper, usually in a bar or restaurant. His routine includes going to the park to write (longhand) for an hour or so in the morning and then taking his writing to the studio to work on. Afterward, he goes to a bar or restaurant, has a beer, and refines his idea or does some sketching. He uses his studio for “putting stuff together” rather than coming up with ideas.

I can relate to this one! I discovered that while I can do all kinds of work in my home office, one thing I cannot do there is any kind of long-range planning. I’d tried taking the planning to various coffee shops, but that wasn’t effective, partly because I don’t—and apparently don’t want to—equate coffee shops with work. But I discovered, almost by accident, that taking my planning materials to the nearby library allows me to get an amazing amount of work done in a relatively brief amount of time. So notice how your environments affect you and figure out which environment is the most effective for the task or process you’re working on. Develop a routine around what works rather than around what you think should work.

#9 Get Out of the Building

Garrison Keillor credits getting out into the “observable world”—as opposed to sitting and looking at a blank page—as providing him with “the start of something.” He recommends walking around with scrap paper and pen to take notes on what you see in the world. These observations and notes are valuable even if they don’t make it into your final work because “everything—everything—starts with the observable world.”

Your brain usually determines what you pay attention to, so you attend to things selectively. We all do. Check out The Invisible Gorilla video on YouTube for verification. Creating a practice of not just noticing what you notice (the usual suspects), but consciously directing your attention can definitely change your perspective. Tell your brain what kinds of things to look for and it will find them. It will also make connections and see patterns that might otherwise have been invisible.

#10 Engage in “Morphological Synthesis”—or Not

Artist and filmmaker Ze Frank uses morphological synthesis to segment his thinking process into parts. He says, “You take 4-5 adjectives or characteristics and then brainstorm in that direction.” He then “flips back and forth between extremes until something interesting comes out of it” and then repeats the process. He likes it because it “forces you to explore the outside boundaries of things.”

OK, that’s interesting, but what Frank also said in the same interview is that he makes something every single day. He said it’s the only design habit he has. “No matter what, I make something.” Developing the habit of making something every day is awesome. It doesn’t have to be big. It doesn’t have to be “successful.” It doesn’t have to be totally original. Just make something. If you’re a writer, write something. If you’re a cook or a chef, cook something. The result doesn’t need to be a tangible object, however. This is about creativity, after all. Create an idea or a concept. Make a new connection between ideas, objects, or people. Have some kind of impact.

I think this is a wonderful agenda to take on: what did I make today?

Z Is for Zombie Systems

What could zombie systems (also known as alien subroutines) and blindfolded cup-stacking possibly have to do with behavior change? Quite a bit, as it turns out. But first, what exactly are these zombie systems and alien subroutines? According to David Eagleman in Incognito:

We harbor mechanical, “alien” subroutines to which we have no access and of which we have no acquaintance. Almost all of our actions—from producing speech to picking up a mug of coffee—are run by alien subroutines, also known as zombie systems.

Eagleman uses the terms interchangeably. He says the term zombie emphasizes the lack of conscious access, while alien emphasizes the foreignness of the programs.

Some alien subroutines are instinctual, while some are learned; all highly automated algorithms become inaccessible zombie programs when they are burned down into the circuitry.

Cup-Stacking Smack-Down

Cup-stacking, at least as performed by Austin Nabor, is an example of a highly automated algorithm—and thus a zombie system.

Nabor has been practicing all the moves involved in cup-stacking regularly for several years. As a result, physical changes have taken place in his brain to hard-wire cup-stacking. He can now perform it automatically without thinking about it, which is why he can do just as well when he’s blindfolded as he can when he can see what he’s doing.

In the video (link above), 10-year-old Nabor faces off against David Eagleman mano-a-mano, as it were, and hands him a resounding defeat. Eagleman said of the contest that he wasn’t even an eighth of the way through his routine when Nabor finished. During the competition, both were fitted with skull caps to monitor electrical activity in their brains. Instead of burning more energy to complete his complex cup-stacking routine speedily and flawlessly, Nabor’s brain used considerably less energy than Eagleman’s brain used to perform the routine much more slowly. In fact, Eagleman described Nabor’s brain as serene.

Eagleman’s brain burned more energy because he had to think about what he was doing and conscious thought burns more energy than zombie systems and alien subroutines burn.

When a professional baseball player connects his bat with a pitch that is traveling too fast for his conscious mind to track, he is leveraging a well-honed alien subroutine.

Your brain rewrites itself based on the things you repeatedly practice, such has hitting a ball with a bat, driving, or swimming. Some of those things could be classified as skills while others might better be classified as habits. Whether they are skills or habits, once they become “etched into the circuitry of the brain,” you lose conscious control over them. Your brain doesn’t particularly care what skills or habits (good or bad) are turned into zombie systems. The purpose of the process, as Eagleman says, is to free up resources, allowing the conscious you to attend to and absorb other tasks.

Because you lose conscious control of zombie systems and they run automatically, it’s quite difficult to change them—to put it mildly.

Learning to Ride the Backwards Bicycle

Engineer Destin Sandlin, creator of the website Smarter Every Day, was challenged to ride a bicycle that had been modified so that when you turn the handlebars to the right, the wheel turns left, and when you turn the handlebars to the left, the wheel turns right. Watch him try—and fail—to ride the bike, and then offer to pay other people if they are able to ride the bike 10 feet.

“Once you have a rigid way of thinking,” Sandlin says, “you cannot change that, even if you want to.” Riding a bicycle, for most of us, is a hard-wired zombie system. Since we don’t have conscious control over the bicycle-riding algorithm, knowing that the bicycle has been altered has no effect on our ability to modify the algorithm—at least not right away.

It took Sandlin eight months of regular practice to learn how to ride the backwards bicycle. However, he noticed that the old pathway was still there and minor distractions, such as a cell phone ringing, could cause his brain to “jump back on the old road it was more familiar with.”

Sandlin’s young son, on the other hand, who had been riding a bicycle for three years, required only two weeks to get the hang of the modified bicycle.

When Sandlin attempted to ride a normal bicycle again after having more or less mastered the backwards bicycle, he couldn’t do it at first. But after about 20 minutes, his brain slipped back into gear, and he was able to remain upright. Think about that when you’re struggling with changing a habit you’ve had for years or maybe even decades. It takes a great deal of repetition and persistence to master a replacement behavior but very little provocation to revert back to the old path.

Consciousness on the Sidelines

Having the knowledge, information, or even will to change your behavior are all System 2 (conscious) processes. They’re certainly useful and even desirable. But a habit is a System 1 (unconscious) zombie system that is not immediately responsive to your conscious intentions or attentions.

In fact, those System 2 processes can sometimes get in the way. Eagleman says:

Not only do we run alien subroutines; we also justify them. We have ways of retrospectively telling stories about our actions as though the actions were always our idea. As an example…I mentioned that thoughts come to us and we take credit for them (“I just had a great idea!), even though our brains have been chewing on a given problem for a long time and eventually served up the final product. We are constantly fabricating and telling stories about the alien processes running under the hood.

Essentially we come up with conscious explanations for unconscious systems we have no access to. When we think we understand something, but we don’t, we’re likely to also think we know what to do about it. But we don’t.

If your brain is running an alien subroutine or a zombie system you don’t want it to run, you have to make like Destin Sandlin and practice the new routine over and over and over again. And you have to be prepared to have your brain “correct” you back to your old behavior at the least provocation.

When that happens, it’s far more productive to get back up on the horse—or bicycle—than it is to create a story about it.


Part of the series A-Z: An Alphabet of Change.

R Is for Rewards

Your brain enjoys rewards so much that it actually has a whole system devoted to them. The neurotransmitter dopamine—sometimes referred to as the pleasure chemical—is part of the reward system. It’s released both when you experience a reward and when you expect to experience one. As the release of dopamine fills you with feelings of pleasure, your brain associates those feelings with whatever you just did or ingested. It’s called associative conditioning.

That association is the basis of the brain’s reward system, the purpose of which is to ensure your survival by helping you learn and remember the behaviors and substances that are good for you. Many different substances, activities, and behaviors trigger the release of dopamine. Some of them, in addition to food and sex, are:

  • social interactions
  • music
  • generosity
  • scary movies, scary situations, or scary thoughts
  • psychoactive drugs (alcohol, cocaine, heroin, nicotine, etc.)
  • gambling
  • sugar
Your Brain Runs on Rewards

For the most part, your brain’s reward system functions automatically without your conscious intervention. You probably don’t pay a lot of attention to it other than being aware that some things are a lot more pleasurable than others, and of course you want to engage in the behaviors or ingest the substances that are pleasurable.

While you may have no problem thinking of some experiences as rewarding, you might be ambivalent—or worse—about using rewards intentionally to help you modify your own behavior. As a being with a prefrontal cortex, you may think you aren’t susceptible to rewards the way your puppy is. Or you might be under the impression you shouldn’t need to use rewards. You should just be able to make up your mind to do something and then do it.

Maybe you think you don’t—or shouldn’t—need to reward yourself for doing what you want to do or what’s in your own best interest. Maybe you believe knowing what you want to do, why you want to do it, and how to do it is sufficient. You’re an adult. You have self-discipline and self-control. Or you can develop it. Rewards might be OK for young children. Or pets. But you don’t need them.

If that’s where you’re coming from, well, science does not support your position. It turns out all of us are hardwired to be “insatiable wanting machines.” If you don’t learn how to use the brain’s reward system, it will continue having its way with you.

Let’s say you want to begin a new habit. If there are no rewards, or weak rewards, habits are much less likely to take hold. That’s because the basal ganglia, which is the part of the brain that turns repetitive behaviors into habits, depends on having enough dopamine to operate efficiently.

I hand out pages of stickers to the clients in my Goals, Habits & Intentions course. Some people love them and immediately figure out how to use them as rewards. Others hold onto them for weeks, wondering what to do with them. (“Why do I have these?”) Some have no problem connecting awarding themselves a sticker with getting a reward. Others go through the motions without making that connection.

A reward is positive reinforcement. It motivates you to repeat the behavior. In the case of long-term goals, small hits of dopamine encourage you to keep moving forward, so it pays to know where you are headed. And it works better to acknowledge and celebrate each small accomplishment along the way (often a sticker will do) than to wait for one big jolt of dopamine at the end (an entire spa day).

Benefits Are Not Rewards

If there were no benefit to you for embarking on a particular course of action, there would be no point in doing it. Benefits answer the question of why you want to do something. So it’s useful to clearly identify all the benefits that would—or could—accrue if you accomplish what you set out to do. But you identify benefits via the conscious part of your brain, and rewards are processed by the unconscious.

Celebrations Are Not Rewards

In behavior-change terms, a celebration is an impromptu acknowledgement of something you’ve accomplished. The difference between a reward and a celebration is in how you use it, not what it is. In order for something to be effective as a reward, you need to crave it. That’s because dopamine is triggered by the expectation of a reward. So in order for you—and your brain—to crave a reward:

  1. The reward needs to be something you really want (enjoy).
  2. The reward needs to be identified ahead of time: what exactly will you get when you complete or accomplish the thing you set out to do?
  3. You also need to follow through and actually give yourself the reward. (You might not think this needs to be stated, but it does.)
Using Rewards = Using Your Brain

You may believe that accomplishment should be its own reward, but your brain doesn’t see it that way—and it’s the way your brain sees it, not the way you do, that matters. Sure some activities and accomplishments are intrinsically rewarding, but that’s not the case for all activities. Rewards help your brain help you accomplish the things you set out to do and turn desirable behaviors into habits.

Because your brain’s reward system operates with or without your participation, you can develop habits you don’t want to have that may be extremely difficult to change or stop. And while the conscious part of the brain is certainly better at many things than the unconscious part of the brain is, the reverse is also true. When it comes to modifying behavior, the smartest thing the conscious part of the brain can do is recognize the value of the reward system—and learn how to use it effectively.


Part of the series A-Z: An Alphabet of Change.

H Is for Habits

donut-and-coffee

Habits are recurring, generally unconscious patterns of behavior you acquire through frequent repetition or that are learned over time. Since they operate outside conscious awareness (and control), you may suddenly discover, as I have, some habits you didn’t know you had.

Your brain creates habits, with or without your conscious participation, in order to operate more efficiently. It chunks repetitive behaviors and turns the chunks over to the basal ganglia so you don’t have to waste your precious and limited System 2 attention on them. So the habit habit is actually a labor-saving device for your brain, which means your brain is primed for habits.

Since we tend to identify with our conscious brain rather than our unconscious, we’re under the illusion that most of what we do is the result of conscious choice (behaviors are preceded by conscious intentions). So you may not be aware of how pervasive habits are in your life.

When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision making. It stops working so hard, or diverts focus to other tasks. Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit

Habits vs. Goals

Habits differ from goals in two significant ways:

  1. Goals are temporary; whether it’s three weeks or three years, there’s always an end point. Habits, on the other hand, are ongoing.
  2. Goals require conscious (System 2) attention from beginning to completion. Habits, once in place, use System 1 attention. That’s why you may be unaware of some of your habits.

Creating a habit you want (or changing an existing habit) does require System 2 attention initially, but only until System 1 takes it over, at which point it is initiated automatically as a result of something in the environment—a cue or a trigger.

Continual repetition of behaviors and thoughts results in highly reinforced neural connections, which are experienced as habits. …By adulthood, most emotional responses and behavioral impulses are conditioned: we think, feel, and behave more or less the same in the same states and social contexts over and over. Habits and the conditioned responses that compose them are processed in the brain in milliseconds, thousands of times faster than conscious decisions. —Steven Stosny, Ph.D.

According to Charles Duhigg, there are three parts to what he refers to as the habit loop: the cue, the routine, and the reward. The cue is what triggers the routine—the beginning of the habit loop—and the reward lets your brain know the loop is complete.

Habits: Good or Bad?

The word “habit” often conjures up the word “bad.” If you think of habits as bad—or as just something inconsequential that you do—you’ll have a harder time creating the habits you want to have.

Whether your habits are “good” or “bad,” they’re all the same to your brain. It doesn’t care what you think of your habits. All it cares about it is being efficient. Do anything often enough and it will become a habit. And habits, by their nature, are hard to change. Trying to exert willpower, using positive thinking, engaging in deep soul searching, or looking for the underlying cause of a habit are all fruitless endeavors. Unfortunately, you can’t have a heart-to-heart with your basal ganglia.

The main reason that conscious control of habits is limited is that it requires the most easily exhaustible and metabolically expensive of mental resources: focused attention. …When resources are limited, people are unable to deliberately choose or inhibit responses, and they become locked into repeating habits. …The autopilot, being virtually inexhaustible, wins the struggle more often. —Steven Stosny

The Value of Habits

alphabet-changeIt’s easy to see the positive, productive role of habits in the development of a skill or craft—that of a musician, an artist, a writer, a quilter, or a cook, for example. We generally expect that the more a musician practices her instrument, the more dishes a cook prepares, the better they will become at doing those things. A musician is unlikely to attain excellence if she only practices when she’s in the mood for it. Skillful musicians develop the habit of practicing regularly whether they’re in the mood for it or not. And they don’t have to be in the mood for it precisely because they’ve developed the habit. They don’t have to waste conscious attention or drain self-control resources by thinking about or deciding each time whether or not to practice.

Because habits don’t drain self-control resources to the same extent as non-habits, once a behavior becomes a habit, it frees up your conscious attention and makes achieving goals considerably easier. Habits and routines are actually essential to people who need to be creative on a regular basis.

Changing the status quo isn’t easy. The unconscious part of your brain, which might be said to be allergic to change, is way ahead of the conscious part, especially in familiar situations. It’s built to predict what’s likely to happen next, construct multiple response scenarios, and initiate the response it considers the most effective—not the response you consider most effective.

That’s why habits seem to have so much power. They are very familiar to your unconscious, which bases its predictions and responses on previous experience. You may want to go for a walk after dinner, but if you’ve been plopping down on the sofa every evening, your brain is going to “choose” the sofa over the walk. You may want to cut back on the donuts, but if you’re in the habit of grabbing one with your coffee at the office, that’s what your brain is programmed to “choose” to do.

You can make use of the power of habit by learning how to change the ones you don’t want and by creating habits you do want. In order to change an existing habit, you need to identify the cue and the reward and substitute a different behavior (routine) that gives you the same reward. To start a new habit, first decide what the behavior will be, and then choose a reward and a cue. It’s easier to start a new habit if you make the cue something you already do on a regular basis. Charles Duhigg explains the process in his Guide to Changing Habits.

One major caveat: There is no magic number of days that it takes to change or create a habit. But there is a highly effective type of magic you can apply; it’s called perseverance.


Part of the series A-Z: An Alphabet of Change.

B is for Baby Steps

baby-steps

I’ve yet to meet anyone who’s excited about the idea of taking baby steps. Most of us want faster and bigger results. We want immediate gratification. We want to stop or start a habit in 21 days—preferably less. We want to overhaul entire areas of our lives by the end of the month. As soon as we think about something we want to accomplish—a project or a goal—we feel like we’re already behind schedule and disappointed it hasn’t yet come to fruition.

We’re impatient. And easily distracted. Not to mention overscheduled and stressed out.

Never mind that our unrealistic expectations keep producing the same unsatisfying results. Our inner voice insists we need to do—we should be able to do—so much more than take baby steps. Baby steps are just not enough.

Well, baby steps are more than enough. If you take them.

Go Back to Start. Do Not Pass Go.

Like most of us, you probably have a habit you’ve made more than a couple of unsuccessful attempts to change, maybe over a span of years or even decades. When you repeatedly try to change a habit (make a different choice) and fail, you don’t simply remain stuck in place. You actually end up worse off than you were before.

We tend to use our lack of success as evidence that there’s something wrong with us. Perhaps we have less willpower or self-control than other people. Or maybe we’re sabotaging ourselves. Or we don’t really want to change. We think the problem is us rather than the way we’re going about things.

The problem is that the more often you say you’re going to do something and don’t do it, the more you persuade your brain not to take you seriously when it comes to changing your behavior. Those multiple failed attempts reinforce the mental model your brain maintains. As a result, the status quo becomes even more entrenched, which makes it that much harder to change the next time you try.

Attempting to accomplish too much too soon is a recipe for failure because the chance of succeeding is miniscule at best. When you try to do too much or too many things at the same time, you’re giving yourself many opportunities to fail. Instead, you need to give yourself more opportunities to succeed.

Opportunities to Succeed

Taking baby steps puts you in a much better position to succeed. You can see your progress and build on your success. For one thing, it’s easier to take baby steps than it is to run sprints or leap tall buildings in a single bound. For another, it’s easier to add to the foundation you’ve built—no matter how close to the ground it may be—than it is to keep failing and having to start over again.

alphabet-changeIf you want to put a morning routine into place that includes a sequence of steps, pick one of them to start with. Don’t add anything else until the first one has become a habit. There’s no formula to determine how long it will take before a behavior becomes a habit. You’ll know when it happens because you’ll find yourself doing it automatically without having to remind yourself, and if you forget, a nagging inner voice will remind you to do it. Then you can add the second step. As you proceed building your routine, you’re likely to discover that it takes less and less time for the additional steps to fall into place.

If there’s a project you want to undertake that feels overwhelming, break it down into baby steps. When I was writing fiction many years ago, every time I sat down at my desk I felt like I was writing the entire novel. It was so daunting that I got very little writing done. So I decided I would fill two legal-pad pages every day, seven days a week. If I felt like writing more, I could, but two pages was something I could easily commit to.

Not only did those baby step lead to the accumulation of at least 14 pages each week, they also helped me turn writing every day into a habit.

If you want to develop a habit that involves doing something multiple times during the day, start out by creating an intention to do it once a day—or even every other day. Once you’ve succeeded with that, you can expand on it.

Dream Big. Take Baby Steps.

Lofty goals are great. But the way to achieve them is to break them down into manageable components and take one step at a time. The unconscious part of your brain resists change. When you attempt to make a big or an immediate change, it reacts by mobilizing forces to get things back on track. In fact, it responds the same way it does when your body experiences a sudden change, such as a drop in temperature, by trying to return it to homeostasis (the status quo).

If you want a new behavior to become status quo, you need to work up to it gradually without alarming your brain. Don’t give it anything to resist. The good news is that once your desired behavior does become status quo, your brain will work just as hard to maintain it as it did to maintain the previous status quo.

When you aim to do it all at once and miss the mark, you end up with nothing but a reinforced sense of ineffectiveness or inadequacy. But success breeds more success—and success is motivating. Learn to identify and take baby steps. It’s much easier than the alternatives—and it works.


Part of the series A-Z: An Alphabet of Change.