The Power of Small Changes

The Power of Small Changes

‘Power’ and ‘Small’ aren’t words you would usually see together too often, but I’d like to tell you why they’re one of my favorite combinations.

Like cheese, grapes and celery – shouldn’t all work together but they do.

In fact one of the hardest parts of my diet is giving up cheese and grapes six days a week but I have and if I do have cheese and grapes on a Saturday, they taste sooooo much better.

So I’m not only going to tell you all about how small changes can be powerful, I’m going to try to tell you WHY.

I’m going to tell you so that you can go out and make some well thought out small changes of your own and see some results from these changes.

Don’t underestimate the power of small changes. Small changes may be small, but they can be a catalyst for an entire movement.

Perspective Shifts

Possibly the most important type of small change is the perspective shift.

I started following the slow-carb diet, not because I particularly wanted or needed to diet, but because I found the concept interesting and like to challenge myself. An interesting and unexpected side-effect of that has been a very slight shift in my thinking about food and nutrition which I describe in this article: A Very Simple Thought That’s Helping Me To Be More Healthy. That’s a very small but very powerful change for me just because the thought took seconds, changing the way I look at eating significantly. It was a change for me simply because I never thought quite in that way before.

In the previous article, ‘Why Habits Are Awesome…‘ I described how a small shift in my fathers thinking led him to give up smoking forever after years of trying, just because one day he decided to give up once and for all. That small change has led to a lot more too.

In a recent article over at The Sales Lion, ‘The Man With One Leg‘, Marcus shared how a small change in his perspective around a certain situation where children were being unruly on an airplane led him to see that event and those children in an entirely different light.

Perspective shifts are often by-products, happening accidentally or in unexpected ways…

… but they don’t have to be.

You can choose to change your perspective and get the same benefits.

When we change our thinking, we change our reality.

Because when we change our thinking, we change our reality.

Olympic Success via Small Changes

In the recent London 2012 Olympics, Great Britain dominated the cycling events and sparked some controversy fueling suggestions in particular from the French that the British had “magic wheels”*1 that they hid after every race. This seems to come from a tongue-in-cheek remark by British cycle supremo Dave Brailsford who told a French newspaper that GB had “specially round wheels”.

In actual fact the success of the British team is “peaking at the right time, talented athletes, commitment and… brilliant coaching” – and within that, lots and lots of small changes.

Brailsford, the performance director for the Team GB cycling team, focuses on the aggregation of marginal gains as his key approach to success – in other words, lots of small improvements to achieve an overall result.

“It was attention to detail that gave us the advantage over the other teams. We considered everything, even the smallest improvements, to give us a competitive edge. It was the accumulation of these small details that made us unbeatable.” Dave Brailsford, Team GB

His approach cleverly combines the simplicity of two concepts I love:

1. What gets measured gets improved
2. The power of small changes (which are easier to manage than big changes)

Brailsford’s approach examines almost every detail, down to the pillows used by cyclists and how they wash their hands.

So it wasn’t magic wheels after all.

A similar small change was made by the coach of swimming legend Michael Phelps, Bob Bowman. What Bowman and Phelps figured out was that it was best to concentrate on tiny moments of success and build them into mental triggers. They worked them into a routine.

“There’s a series of things we do before every race that are designed to give Michael a sense of building victory.” Bob Bowman*2

The small change in this case was to introduce visualization into Micheal Phelps’ routine and take away the nerves by building a routine around that visualization and familiarity. The actual race then just becomes another step in the process which started earlier that day and has been nothing but a series of familiar victories.

Sound familiar? – once again the power of small changes and the forming of habits.

Why I Challenged You

I recently challenged you to give up one thing. Don’t worry if you didn’t read that article – if you want to take part in this simple challenge you still can – go and read that brief article now and just leave a comment stating what you choose to give up. To give you a free accountability partner and explore with you how you’re doing with the change, I’ll check back with you later based on when you left the comment.


In any case, the point of that article was really a pre-cursor to this one.

The challenge clearly leads you to make a simple change, and I’d like to see how that works out for you (sure you could have chosen your one thing to be something really complex, but the likelihood is you didn’t, you made a small change or a few small changes).

Why do I want to see how that works out for you?

Well, aside from helping you in any way I can via this little experiment, it’s because when we pay attention, some interesting things tend to happen…

1. You Get Some Accountability

We already mentioned this little nugget:

What gets measured gets improved.

so the fact that we’re paying attention, the fact that you (if you did) wrote down in the comments what your small change was going to be means you are creating some accountability for that change – this accountability will almost certainly make you more successful with that change than if you made the change in secret.

I plan to talk about accountability more later so I won’t elaborate too much here but you get the idea.

2. You Get Some Momentum

One of the best things about small changes is that they give you momentum.

This is not to be underestimated.

My son recently started at a new school.

Big school.

Well big for him given our current lifestyle.

He was moving from our village primary school which has a total of 41 pupils (yes, 41 pupils in the entire school, across 4 years) to a secondary school in the next village with over 700 pupils. He has to get there himself with the bus rather than walking there every day with the family and he has gone from being the oldest year in school back to being the youngest.

The school is actually really cool. We like it a lot.

Day 1 – They have this thing where the very first day is just for the new joiners, just for year 7, so everyone in the entire campus is new, gets to feel their way around the school and facilities and the teachers are all there on hand to help the new children settle in.

I really like that.

Then Day 2 the rest of the pupils (the big kids) arrive.

My son told me that he was worried about Day 1 (new school) but much more worried about Day 2 (lots of strange big kids to prod him and make fun of him).

So what happened?

… because Day 1 was just for new kids, he was relatively calm on Day 1. Of course he was not the only new kid worried about Day 2. The majority of them were and on Day 1 they all got to talk about it, whilst getting used to their new surroundings.

By the end of Day 1, Day 2 didn’t seem so scary anymore.

Day 2 passed by effortlessly in the end and according to my son, both days were ‘awesome’.

We’re now at the end of week 1 and he already feels at home with his new morning routine (he doesn’t want us to speak to him or acknowledge him if we pass him and his friends at the bus stop whilst we’re taking our daughter to primary school) and his new school. In fact he seems to have aged another 5 years in just the last few days.

Day 1 gave him momentum.

Rather than putting off a big change until tomorrow, make a small change that you can make today and that big change will become much smaller.

In fact, the more you can break big changes down into smaller changes, the more you’ll get done and you’ll avoid procrastination which is a terrible thing, never any good to anyone.

The Power of Small Changes

3. It Could Just Be A Catalyst

Small changes really can alter the course of the universe.

Or your universe.

In its fullest extent, this is known as the butterfly effect:

In chaos theory, the butterfly effect is the sensitive dependence on initial conditions, where a small change at one place in a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences to a later state. The name of the effect, coined by Edward Lorenz, is derived from the theoretical example of a hurricane’s formation being contingent on whether or not a distant butterfly had flapped its wings several weeks before.*3

Now I’m not asking you to go out there and start a hurricane.

I’m not even asking you to change the world.

I’m just saying that it’s entirely possible that any small change you make could be a catalyst for much greater changes in your life.

It could even have started with the small change you made taking up my simple give up one thing challenge.

No, really, don’t mention it.

in 2006, two Australian researchers, Megan Oaten and Ken Cheng conducted an experiment which was later published in the Journal of Economic Psychology – in this experiment they found that when they got participants to make changes in either their fitness or money habits, good habits seemed to spill over into other parts of their lives.*3

In other words, these changes were a catalyst for further changes.

There are plenty of high-profile examples, perhaps you can think of one of your own or that you have found particularly interesting, in which case I’d love you to share it in the comments below.

Over To You…

Now that we’ve discussed habits, making changes (giving up one thing) and the power of small changes, I’d really like to know for those of you who accepted my little challenge how you’re finding the change and if this has led to anything else, whether thoughts, challenges or other material changes.

Annie wanted more time so gave up cooking on certain days, Anshul committed to give up potatoes, Allie gave up sandwiches, Amy is giving up malls and movies every weekend, Jeevan gave up eating too much, Vicki gave up having a messy room, Razwana gave up speaking in English constantly (as she’s in France) and eating sugar – I’d really love to hear how these changes are panning out, particularly in the context of the last few articles.

Whether or not you took the ‘Give up one thing’ challenge, let me know what small changes you can make right now to give you some momentum in your life or your work. Is there a change you need or want to make in your life that would be easier to tackle if you made a related small change first (like my son’s school example)?

*1 The Independent
*2 Charles Duhigg, The Power Of Habit
*3 Wikipedia


The Power of Small Changes — 17 Comments

  1. Hello! I like a lot your articles, they are easy to understand and give practical advices on how to proceed. I would appreciate if you can comment more on how to divide big challenges into small ones to allow better planning (and other good things). What if you know what you should get at the end, but since you are doing it for the first time you have no idea what kind of specific challenges/steps it may involve.Thanks!

    • Hi Irnya,

      thanks for the comment & it’s a great question. What if you know where you want to get but not the exact steps to get there? Well, first of all the main thing by far is knowing where you want to get, because then you can ‘course-correct’, not only that but if you have absolute clarity about where you are trying to get to with anything, it’s something you’re going to keep coming back to and something magical happens – we ‘align’ ourselves to that goal even sub-consciously – read this article on visualization if you haven’t already.

      But then you still need to actually work out what to do next at any given point. How you go about this depends very much on your priorities.

      Often people get overwhelmed by how big something is and procrastinate – the thing to do is not to say ‘I’m not ready to take this big decision’ but to look at any smaller decision (or task) that you can make.

      The following articles may be of interest:

      All of these are relevant to your question in different ways.

      In terms of the more technical aspects of planning and estimating whats needed to reach goals (particularly for something you’ve never done before like a brand new project) – I’ll write something on this subject but it’s going to take a few weeks as we have some articles already in the queue for the next few weeks. If you’re on our email list, drop me a mail and I’ll let you know directly when I publish this if you like.

      Thanks for the comment and the question – I hope this helps.

  2. Hi Alan!
    life is not easy because it have many changes and challenge which happen in our life always.but changes in life can learn many things so in begin it would be hard but in after you have to make a habit of these changes.

    • Hey Nilesh, thanks for stopping by and for this comment.

      – and you’re absolutely right, changing our life often seems really difficult and more difficult for some than others, but what is true for everyone is that it’s easier if we change things one small step at a time and beyond that perhaps if we focus on the only two trends that matter.

      Thanks again for the comment & take care,

  3. I have been experimenting a bit more with the food I eat, but now I am concrete – I have a basic idea or outline of how I should eat (instead of eating more at lunch and eating nothing for dinner, I am just going to eat more at dinner and less for lunch). By less, I mean the quantity (and I am focusing on nutritious food, such as those wheat bars which claim to contain a lot of vitamins and proteins).

    It has been great so far. Small changes, big effects 😉

    I agree with you on that (I especially have experienced this in life and in my blog, especially when I experiment). The small changes we make – whether it is a shift in perspective or something else – it all adds up.

    Another thing I have done recently is to adapt and work with my schedule, instead of resisting everything and trying to get more things done with less time (so, I am focused now. 3-4 hours free I get at college for blogging and when I am blogging, it’s all college work).

    Lots of time to do both (And of course, managing blogging in those 3-4 hours means no distractions, no checking twitter when I am doing something important related to class).

    It’s all good.

    Great to hear that your son is adapting to the new school, Alan (Yeah, I can relate in my case how people change. I felt a lot older – like an adult the first day I entered college).

    Anyways, hope all is good with you 🙂

    Jeevan Jacob John

    • Hey Jeevan,

      sounds good though I am a little concerned about you eating less at lunch and more at dinner – did I understand that right, that you now plan to eat more in the evenings and less earlier in the day?

      Generally speaking most research shows that it is better to eat more earlier in the day (because it sets you up to have more energy through the day and then burn that off as you go through the various activities of the day) and less later in the evening (because after the evening comes the night, where you’re not exactly burning the calories – unless of course you work a night-shift ;-))

      I love your ideas around being focused on your schedule and removing distractions. Awesome. I love time-boxing. Have a look at this brief post on the Pomodoro technique if you haven’t already – I’m probably going to write a little more on this subject too because I have more to say on that (particularly around prioritization and to-do lists) though debating whether to write that just for my list or in a blog post at the moment.

      thanks for another great comment Jeevan and keep me posted on the diet – drop me a mail if you like,

      take care & best wishes,

      • Yeah, I am still thinking about that since I have also heard about studies saying that eating more at lunch and less at dinner is better (So, here is what I am going to do, eat less than usual – at all times, and exercise a bit more). I can then progressively increase (both – how much eat and how much time I exercise).

        Yeah, I have used pomodoro (Well, I was experimenting with distraction free blogging throughout the summer – tried different tools like Zen writer, Focus Booster, Rescue Time, To-do lists). All can help, if you used effectively (right now, I relying entirely on my mind to work it all out and be focused).

  4. Excellent! I’ve been on the same track for a while. In fact, even started a blog about being a Tiny Bit Better every day. And I will attest…a tiny little change every day adds up like crazy. It’s like compound interest and I LOVE the way the tiny little changes spill over into other areas. Thanks Alan!

  5. Well Alan, I didn’t participate because I don’t really have anything changes I need to make. As I had mentioned to you I’m by no means perfect but I also don’t have any bad habits. I’m not overweight, I walk every evening and I get everything done each day that needs to be accomplished. I don’t watch too much TV and I think all my habits are good ones.

    I’m sure there is something in my life that could be improved but at this moment in time I would have no clue what that would me. I lead a very simple life, just the way I love it.

    Glad you shared this with us though and you’ve given me something to think about. I’m sure there is something that I could change to make it better. I know there never seem to be enough hours in the day to accomplish what I would like but getting up earlier won’t do the trick either.

    Have a great week Alan.


    • I can relate to what you’re saying Adrienne and admire your set up,


      I do think that we all have something we can give up or some small change we can make to improve things.

      Life is about enjoying every moment and continually learning and adjusting from that learning (if you ask me).

      That being said, if you’re really happy with your lot, then it’s just no biggie, is it? At least you’re enjoying life and that’s great to hear and it’s awesome.

      How about a bit of clutter. There must be a bit of clutter somewhere you can remove 😉

      Actually, from what you’ve told me about you, I reckon that you are making small changes all the time but you maybe just don’t even realize it – and that’s a huge part of what has made you successful. You’re probably doing it right now – what do you think of that?

      • Like I said, I’m by no means perfect but I’m pretty darn content with my life.

        Clutter! Alan, I’m annoyingly organized and have been that way my entire life. I have no clutter. As a matter of fact, I don’t keep anything that takes up space. I live in a small one bedroom condo so you can imagine not having a lot of “extra room” to store things.

        I do get rid of things when I stop using them so I’m not a pack rat. I’m sure with time though I’ll find something new I want to do and the changes will begin.

  6. Hi Alan,

    Small changes can add up to a whole new direction for your life.

    Recently, I’ve been making the change of getting up a hour earlier to have some time to myself. I have quiet time to be still for a few minutes, journal and it helps with productivity. Just getting one or two things done in the morning can get my day off to a better start. Thanks for a great post on small changes.

    • Exactly Cathy,

      giving yourself enough time in the mornings (whatever that means for you) is definitely a good habit to get into.

      many thanks for the comment,

      take care & best wishes,

  7. Making small changes in your life is definitely a much easier way to make a difference that will last larger than if you tried to make one big change.

    Personally I give up reading my local newspaper to give myself more time each day. It might sound like a trivial thing, but just by not spending twenty to thirty minutes each morning reading the paper gave me that time to start my day sooner.

    • I can relate to that Jason & good move.

      even in the best newspapers it’s so easy to take up time just reading ‘stuff’.

      plus these days it’s relatively easy to get very targeted news just in time as and when you want it. Much more efficient!

      also the number of times I’ve heard people say ‘It might sound like a trivial thing, but…’ these are usually the changes that really start to make a difference and lead on to more…

      thanks for stopping by Jason & for sharing this comment!

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