Why microsteps work

How small changes can make a big difference.
Published August 11, 2019

If you’ve ever tried to break a bad habit or start a good one, you know first-hand that behaviour change can be extremely difficult. But there’s one sure-fire way to implement changes in your life: the key is to start small – really small.

“Radical lifestyle turnarounds hardly ever stick, because there are too many changes to manage,” says Dan DeFigio, a nutrition expert, author and founder of BeatingSugarAddiction.com.

“People tend to fall into the trap of thinking that they have to change everything: Eat fewer processed carbs, quit sugar, stop drinking wine, eat more vegetables, balance your protein-to-carb ratios, make time for exercise, sleep better, plan your meals and snacks, go shopping, meal prep … who can do all that? No one can. You’ll never be able to do everything,” DeFigio says.

Most people, he says, become afraid to try making any lifestyle changes because they’ve convinced themselves that if they can’t do everything, they may as well do nothing. But we don’t have to do everything to have a positive effect on our bodies.

“You can make progress with tiny actions and one-off decisions,” DeFigio says. “You may not be able to do everything, but you can do something.”

“Since microsteps break down tasks into small steps, they’re an effective way to attain those bigger goals,” says Caleb Backe, a certified personal trainer and life coach for Maple Holistics. “They keep you on track and build momentum for progress. Once you’ve achieved one ‘step,’ a.k.a. a microstep, you move onto the next part of the breakdown. You keep going like this until you’ve succeeded in your macrogoal,” he explains, adding that this strategy makes big goals less intimidating.

So how do we do it?

“The way to implement small changes into your life is by breaking down your goal so minutely that you barely even notice that you’re making a change,” Backe says.

“When setting microsteps, you first need to break down how your long-term goal can be achieved. Once you know the ‘how,’ you’re better armed to break it down into bite-sized chunks.”

For example, he says, if your goal is to be more organized, break that down a few times to get to something really small that you can work your way up from. This might mean that all you have to do for your first microstep is leave your keys in the same place every day when you come in and out of the house.

“Once this has become a mindless habit, that’s when you up your game to the next step. Continue subtly stepping up the game until you reach your goal of being a more organized person,” says Backe.

DeFigio challenges everyone to turn their “do nothing” thinking into “do something” thinking. Here’s an example of the different thought patterns:

  • Do nothing: “I don’t have time to work out five days a week, so I don’t have time to work out.”
  • Do something: “I can take a walk after dinner.”
  • Do nothing: “I’m stressed out, so I can’t improve my eating.”
  • Do something: “I will bring one healthy snack to work with me tomorrow.”

“Find some things that you can do,” DeFigio says. “You'll be pleasantly surprised once you make a short list.”

And, he adds, “not surprisingly, small successes breed motivation to try more.”

So, take one microstep and see where it leads.