A 1% change can transform your life

My kids school have a “100% Club” for pupils that don’t miss a single register in the whole academic year. Very few kids make it into this prestigious attendance club. Obtaining 100% in anything is pretty damn hard, nigh on impossible.

What if this was flipped and it was impressive to be part of a 1% club?  This is a club where you aim to make 1% improvements to your life on a day by day basis. Making small tweaks continuously over a long period of time, in order to guide your life towards a different more desirable destination. I often see clients in my private practice who feel overwhelmed by the size of the goals they have set themselves, whether that is to get a better work life balance, to stop their worst case scenario thinking, to lead a healthier lifestyle or become a more attentive partner. Travelling from your current position, in order to get you to where you want to be, seems like it could be a long and arduous journey. If you feel a bit daunted by the process of change it can easily lead to a mindset of “its too difficult” or “I can never achieve it.”  It’s exactly with thinking like this that you can slip back into old familiar habits, keeping yourself in your comfort zone and not stretching yourself.

In a therapeutic coaching session recently I was encouraging a client to break his goal down into mini micro steps. He told me about a book he was reading that advocated just that “Atomic Habits” by James Clear.  Lots of tiny changes can make a cumulative difference. What difference does 1% make you may ask? Over a lifetime those little choices determine the difference between who you are and who you could be.

I read the first chapter free on Amazon and was hooked. It gave the example of how mediocre went to stratospheric in thousands of little micro steps. British cycling used to be a non event.  In 2003 a new performance director was hired to bring British Cycling out a century of underwhelming mediocrity. Dave Brailsford made lots and lots of tiny changes to the cycling team - from the pillows they slept on, rubbing alcohol to the tyres so they would grip more, getting them to wear heated shorts, painting the inside of the vans white so dust could easily be detected. He called this “the aggregation of marginal gains.” Team GB started winning tournaments, medals and races. Success could not be attributed to any one thing but a combined effect of all the little changes that had taken place.  Too often we think big effort equals big success. Just like the hare and the tortoise - slow and steady wins the race.

Improving 1% is not really noticeable in the short term but over a sustained period of time it can be more meaningful. Doing the plank for one minute a day might seem like nothing but after a year you will be noticeable stronger and fitter. The effects of your habits multiple as you repeat them, just as your money accumulates compound interest over time. Repeating a habit changes the brain. Our brains form neural pathways for the things we do regularly in order to conserve energy. That is why we flip into autopilot mode when we drive a familiar route, we don’t need to pay so much attention. It is only when you look back over years and years that the effect of habits can be appreciated.

Dan Buttener studies Blue Zone, geographic regions where many people live long and healthy lives, reaching over 100 years old (includes Sardinia, Okinawa in Japan, Loma Lindy in California and Ikaria, a Greek island). Dan found commonalities amongst each of these Blue Zones which led to a formula for success that includes lifestyle, community and purpose. People in these longevity hot spots do not pursue health and happiness. Health and happiness comes from the environment which they are in and their little daily habits over their lifetime.  You need to look back over their whole life in order to understand the habits that contributed to good health and longevity.

Take a moment to think about the small daily habits that you practice? It might be that you start each day drinking a glass of water, you might always take the stairs or walk up the escalators, you might give thanks at the end of each day, kiss the children and tell them you love them, smile at the bus driver.

Likewise, unhealthy habits accumulate - the biscuit with your cup of tea, taking the lift instead of stairs, the critical voice inside our head that tells you that you are stupid or ugly. These micro aggression multiple over a lifetime reaching a tipping point.

Atomic Habits book outlines 4 rules to build good habits and break bad ones:

1.      Maintain awareness of what you are doing rather than blindly leading your day largely on autopilot. In order to foster good habits you need to become more aware of what you are doing. For example, every time you brush your teeth you could do 3 push ups, or every time you make a cup of tea you could do 5 deep breaths waiting for the kettle to boil. Use your environment to cue positive routines and reinforce positive behaviour.

2.      Make the positive habits attractive. An electrical engineer student from Dublin knew he needed to exercise more so he rigged his bike up to his laptop and created a computer programme that would allow him to watch Netflix if cycling at a certain speed. If he slowed down the programme would pause until he peddled faster. The more attractive an opportunity is the more likely it is to become habit forming.

3.      Make new habits easy so you are able to take action and repeat them often. The number of times you perform your good habit is key. Stop procrastinating, just do it. For example, if you wanted to become a vegan you could start up by eating vegetables at every meal and build up from there

4.      Make habits satisfying, we are more likely to repeat a behaviours when the experience is satisfying and enjoyable.

So next time you set yourself a goal, make an intention or want to do something think about how a small action, when repeated enough times, can have a profound impact.  Small improvements can seem meaningless because they don’t deliver noticeable change but reading one page of a book a day, meditating for one minute a day, doing 10 push ups a day over a lifetime does make a difference. Next time you think to yourself “what is the point?” remember one tiny change can transform your life.

Nicola Strudley