When I started playing around with the idea of an Excellence Experiment last year, my first idea was to immediately start approaching my entire life with a spirit of excellence, giving 100% to everything I tackled. My new business… my old business… friendships… groups I belonged to… exercise… eating healthy… the way I dressed… the way I kept my home clean and organized… I was going to do everything excellently!
I’m nothing if not ambitious.
But as you can probably guess, that approach didn’t work out very well.
The simple reason was that I was trying to change hundreds of habitual behaviors simultaneously.
So I scaled back. I decided I would focus instead on developing excellence through the process of continuous gradual improvement, and I would start with just a few specific behaviors. For example, I used to be habitually late – not terribly late, maybe only a few minutes, but it would stress me out, especially if I had to search for parking, and I would show up wherever I was going sweating and frazzled. And being late doesn’t leave the best impression on the person waiting. So I decided I would start leaving 5-10 minutes earlier, and get places on time, even if that meant I was the one waiting.
It wasn’t easy, and it required a fair amount of concentration and effort. Every time I went somewhere, I had to think about what time I would normally leave, back it up, and figure out how to get my act together and get out the door at the new time. But it stuck. For the past 9 months, I’ve been early or on time 99% of the time, and I’ve eliminated one major daily sources of stress. It’s become my new normal. I’ve become punctual.
Little did I know it but I was using something called a ‘microresolution’. When I read “Small Move Big Change” by Caroline I. Arnold, a proverbial light bulb went off, and I suddenly understood why my resolution to be on time worked when so many other resolutions over the years had failed.
What’s the Difference Between a Microresolution and a Regular Resolution?
When you look at a typical resolution, the type millions of people make every New Year, they’re usually very broad and generic. Lose weight. Get into shape. Save money. Get rich. Be organized. Quit smoking. But each of these goals, or the opposite unwanted state that we’re usually in when we set the goal, is the result of dozens of individual habits or ingrained behaviors. And just like my monster goal to do everything excellently, they usually fail because it’s extremely difficult to change multiple habits at the same time.
Habits are generally unconscious, things we do without even thinking about what we’re doing or why. They run on autopilot. To change them requires conscious effort, self-control and willpower. But research by Mark Muraven and Roy Baumeister shows that we have only limited reserves of self-control, and every time we tap into them, there is less left for subsequent demands or temptations. (1) So when we try to tackle a typical resolution, our willpower is quickly depleted by the dozens of habits that we have to think about and make decisions about throughout the day. It’s only a matter of time until we crack and crumble, and slip back into our comfortable old routine.
In contrast, a microresolution targets one specific habit or behavior with laser-like focus. Arnold defines a microresolution as “a compact and powerful commitment designed to nail a precise behavioral target exactly and deliver benefits immediately.”
Instead of a resolution to lose weight, a microresolution narrows the focus down to a very specific behavior, like substituting a piece of fruit for a bag of cookies as an afternoon snack. It replaces the broad, generic goal with a concrete, manageable, and meaningful action that you drill over and over until it becomes part of your brain’s autopilot.
Because the action is limited, it’s relatively easy to remain focused for the time it takes to develop into a permanent habit, and it pays immediate dividends. You feel a surge of success every time you perform the action, rather than waiting for someday in the far-off future when you’ve reached your ideal weight, or have a perfectly clean and organized house.
Guidelines for Using Microresolutions Successfully
Ask yourself: what is one concrete, meaningful action I could take regularly that would move me closer to my overall goal?
Get a picture in your mind of your big end goal. Then start thinking about all of the individual habits where you are currently out of alignment with that vision. Pick one and develop a specific, meaningful microresolution to begin to implement. Commit to it. Put it into action.
For example, one of my big goals is to live and work in an organized, clutter-free environment. However, I have a lot of unhelpful habits that create a disorganized, cluttered environment. I’ve tried throwing myself into cleaning and organizing projects, and my place looks good for a few days… and then the mess creeps back because of habits like letting my mail and books and receipts pile up on the dining table, tossing my jacket on the nearest empty chair, buying new books when I haven’t finished the stack(s) I already have, and starting dozens of notebooks that pile up on my desk and coffee table.
It’s overwhelming to think about all of those habits, so I picked one that I’m practicing right now: taking the receipts out of my purse every night and entering them in the checkbook, tossing them, or filing them immediately. It takes a few minutes. And I feel the benefits immediately because I no longer have all of those little pieces of paper piling up on my table. Once this habit goes on autopilot, I’ll pick another target, like hanging up my jacket in the closet.
Don’t rush the process
You’ve probably heard that it takes 21 days to form a new habit. It’s not true. No one is quite sure where that number came from, but it may be related to an old study that found it took an average of 21 days for amputees to adjust to the loss of a limb.
One widely-referenced research study that looked at 96 people who were trying to establish a wide variety of habits found that on average, it actually took 66 days for the new habit to take root and become a comfortable part of their routine. (2) Some habits took less time (18 days was the shortest) and some took much longer (in one case it took 284 days!). They also found that some people were more resistant than others, and it took them longer to form new habits.
So allow yourself as much time as it takes to get that new habit into autopilot before you jump to a new one.
Stick to a small, manageable number of microresolutions at any one time
Arnold recommends working on no more than two microresolutions at a time. I’m not sure that number is written in stone, and I’m finding three at a time works for me, but I can definitely confirm that trying to tackle too many at once is a recipe for disaster. After my success with developing the habit of being early to events, I thought it would be a great idea to make microresolutions in six or seven different areas of my life. At the same time. And I gave myself only 21 days for each one to take root.
That worked about as well as trying to do everything excellently. After a couple of months, I wound up with a giant to-do list. Some days I nailed some of the habits, and on other days I hit different ones, but very rarely did I check everything off. And most of the things on that list never became habits, because my focus was distracted and I couldn’t perform most of the actions regularly enough. So now I’m down to three microresolutions at a time, which seems to be working for me.
Link your microresolution to an appropriate cue
Habitual behaviors are almost always triggered by cues in our environment. When X happens, you do Y. Getting up in the morning may be your cue to turn on the coffee, or maybe the smell of coffee cues you to get up in the morning. You feel stressed, so you grab a snack, or go shopping, or do a deep breathing exercise. Cues can be clock- or calendar-based too – you leave for work at a certain time every day, or you take a specific class at the gym on a specific day, at a specific time, every week.
When you are trying to develop a new habit, the process is more effective when you link your microresolution to an environmental trigger or existing habit. For instance, I’ve been trying to get into the habit of doing ab exercises daily. When I left it open-ended regarding the timing, it was very hit-or-miss. Now, I’ve made it part of my before-bed ritual. Right after I brush my teeth, I do my ab exercises. And I’m much more consistent.
Don’t be afraid to fine-tune your microresolution
Once you make your microresolution and start to implement it, you may discover you need to play around and tweak it a little bit to make it fit you and your life perfectly.
When I first started working on my ‘clear up receipts daily’ microresolution, that was as much detail as I included. Because it was so vague, some days I took care of those receipts daily, and sometimes I didn’t remember until I was already in bed with the lights off. So I tweaked it to add the cue, ‘as soon as I come home at the end of the day, take all receipts out of purse and put on computer desk to process’. This step takes all of 30 seconds, but because the receipts are now in my way when I sit down to use the computer, I have no choice but to deal with them at some point in the evening.
So play around with your microresolution if it doesn’t work perfectly right out of the gate. It may require tweaking the cue or the timing or the scope, but stick with it. When you see the results, you’ll be happy you did.
1. Muraven M and Baumeister RF. Self-regulation and depletion of limited resources: Does self-control resemble a muscle?” Psychological Bulletin. 2000;126(2):247-259.
2. Lally P, et al. How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology. 2010;40(6):998-1009.