Bold Moves are Often Easier than Small Ones

How often do you floss your teeth? Flossing is a habit generally recommended by dentists that takes an incredibly small amount of time and effort each day. Then why do so many people not do it?

Is it because these people have made a careful cost-benefit analysis and decided the two minutes wasn’t worth their time? I doubt it.

Instead we’re more likely to say these people are lazy. After all, how lazy do you have to be to not spend two minutes flossing? But I’m also skeptical of this reaction too.

You see, I’m also someone who often doesn’t floss. And, yes, I know I should.

As someone who has written about changing habits and spent a great deal of time researching it, that admission may seem grossly hypocritical. After all, if I haven’t been able to consistently maintain a miniscule habit like flossing, why trust my advice on much larger habits in your work and studies?

However, perhaps ironically, it’s because of all that research that I understand my own failing. The difficulty of changing a behavior is not proportional to how big that change is—and this is a tool you can leverage to accomplish bigger things.

People Underestimate the Difficulty of Small Changes

Assuming you don’t do either activity regularly, which is easier to do once: flossing or running ten miles?

Clearly spending ninety seconds on dental hygiene is easier than an hour or more of endurance. But how much more? Ten times as difficult? A hundred? I don’t have a quantitative answer, but I’d guess that running ten miles for most non-runners is orders of magnitude more difficult than flossing.

Now let’s change the question slightly. Which is easier to do every day for three months: flossing or running?

Once again running is still more difficult. But how much more difficult? Running ten miles once is agonizing if you’re out of shape. But if you ran every day, you could get to a point where running ten miles every day was a normal routine. Exerting, but not agonizing. Flossing, on the other hand, stays as easy as ever.

My guess is that running every day is harder than flossing every day, but by a considerably smaller fraction than doing either activity only once.

The power of habits is that they take even activities which are extremely difficult to do and make them normal enough that the effort required isn’t considerable. The weakness of this same system is that seemingly easy habits require more effort than we generally allocate for them.

You see, in mentally preparing for a goal, most people scale up the one-time difficulty of a task and imagine it repeated over the entire period. If running is 100x harder than flossing, then the habit of running requires 100x the effort of the flossing habit—even if in reality the effort difference is perhaps only 3-4x.

Start with Bold Moves

If you have a lot of changes you want to make in your life (or your routine is going to change abruptly), my advice is to start with bigger, bolder changes that you can focus on completely. Because the habitual effort is comparable for big habits and small ones, you get a sizable advantage for fixing the big ones first.

Take my current project, as an example. If you’ve ever tried learning a foreign language, holding a thirty minute conversation when you’re at a basic level is often agonizingly difficult. Yet, when I started this project, I set the rule of not speaking English for an entire year.

That rule might seem very difficult to uphold, but that hasn’t been the case. The first day was brutal. The first week was hard. The first month was fine. Now entering my third month in Spain, speaking entirely in Spanish is so normal with myself and my roommate (who had extremely minimal Spanish prior to arrival) is so natural we hardly notice it.

I did the same thing during the MIT Challenge. Studying for 10 hours per day in the beginning may seem incredibly hard. And, to be fair, my first few weeks were a real grind. But by the middle of the challenge, when I toned down my studying schedule to 7-8 hours, the habit had been so imprinted that I didn’t feel stressed at all.

Because I realize that the effort to make new habits doesn’t scale according to their one-time difficulty, my failing is that I often neglect smaller habits, which are proportionally more difficult to start than their one-time difficulty would suggest.

Look for Bold, Yet Simple, Changes

Simple changes are much easier to enforce, even if they appear difficult, than complicated ones. My current challenge has the backbone of not speaking English. It may appear difficult, but it’s fairly straightforward. My MIT Challenge had the backbone of a consistent blocks of studying time every weekday.

If you want to make bigger changes to your work or studies, my suggestion is to start with simple, but broad, habits. Look for the one or two really big things that, if you changed them, would have a big payoff. Trying to tweak miniscule things at the beginning will be much more difficult.

  • Mike

    Is bj fogg dead wrong on this one?

  • nimi

    Its true, to initiate a proper habit seems like a request for a change of character, even if it is for good. But, like you said, over a period of time, it will come easy; so does other things in life.

  • Stephan Wiedner

    Hey Scott,

    Another great post with some good insights. You suggest making bold moves to create new habits. In the book The Power of Habit but Duhigg, he talks about how Target targets new mothers because their shopping habits are so easily influenced due to the massive change in their lives. So his conclusion, if I recall correctly, is that big life changes can lead to habit changes. It’s like an opportunity to reboot your brain.

    I moved to Mexico for a good chunk of the winter last year. The first few days were computationally heavy for my brain, as I was taking in all the new information about my place of living. Three or four days later, I had settled into my new place with new routines. I wonder if I attempted to deliberately start a new habit during that time, it would have been easier. For one, I started going to yoga 4 times a week which was nice.

    I also wonder if your most recent challenge is helped by the fact that you moved to another country, forcing your brain to reboot, and establish new habits/routines.

    Stephan

  • KimSia

    I agree this “People Underestimate the Difficulty of Small Changes” can happen. But I think it happens less often than you think.

    Usually the more common problem is, what people think are small changes are actually still very big daunting ones.

    They may think they are following the advice laid out in articles like the Seinfeld method where they adopt small changes consistently.

    The consistency breaks down because the changes they were adopting are still too big to be called small changes.

    Another more common issue is too much planning ahead.

    Running 10 miles a day for 3 months is too mentally daunting.

    This is no small change. That is a huge change.

    If you change this to, I will put on my running clothes everyday. That will work better.

    It incorporates small changes and the kind of huge change you suggest with your language learning.

    The small change is obvious.

    From a non-runner to putting on running clothes everyday, that is pretty small.

    On the other hand, it is huge change. Instead of saying explicitly, you will do this for 3 months. You set no such time limit.

    The huge change is therefore implicit. You will become a totally different person eventually — a person who is a couch potato to a daily-active person!

    I have no statistical evidence to back me up. But then again, I notice neither did you. 🙂

    My own anecdotal evidence is that I tried this method exactly on 12th August this year.

    I wanted to become a fitter and healthier person. I have spent much money and time on books and diets and gym memberships.

    I was tired of implementing huge changes that do not “stick”.

    So on 12th August, I told myself everyday I will do 1 pushup.

    Not 1 set of 10. but 1 single pushup.

    It is so funny to do 1 push up and no more. But effective. Why?

    I had absolutely no excuse to say I have no time to do 1. That is so pathetic, it automatically hijacks the usual stock answer my lazy mind gives.

    “I will do this later.”
    “I am tired today. Do 2 times as many tomorrow to make up for this.”

    I did not plan long term. I only planned to do 1 a day. Until something changes.

    The other things I added was I gave myself permission to give up at any time and I will track the numbers.

    Next thing I knew, my log looked like this in my Evernote:

    28th Oct: 3 sets of 30 pushups without getting up x 2 + 3 pull up
    27th Oct: 3 sets of 30 pushups without getting up x 2 + 3 pull up
    26th Oct: 3 sets of 30 pushups without getting up x 2 + 3 pull up
    ..

    20th August: 2 sets of 15 pushups
    19th August:15 pushups
    18th August: 0 pushups
    17th August:10 pushups
    16th August: 7 pushups
    15th August: 6 pushups
    14th August: 5 pushups
    13th August: 2 pushups
    12th August: 1 pushups

    I can honestly tell you I never plan for the exact number I want to do each day.

    you will also notice that on the 18th August I did zero.

    I forgave myself for that transgression.

    My aim everyday was to do the same as the day before or if I got sick of it, I will do just that slightly more than the day before.

    I have several streaks where I did the same amount everyday, not knowing when I will increase the load the next day or stop for a day or decrease the load.

    But everyday I continue, everyday it is a win.

    There is the occasional strain. Mentally speaking, the strain is not severe.

    This way, I reduce using willpower as a motivator to the barest minimum.

    I am happy to hear your thoughts. Of course, I allow that maybe I will not change as fast as an extreme big change like you did to your life.

  • Timothy Kenny

    I agree on the bold move. There is always that pain to start a new habit and the bold move gets you excited about having a cool goal to drive towards and the pain is front loaded so you get through it quickly rather than having it drag on for months and months. It’s kind of like ripping off a bandaid…its better to do it quickly and get it over with.

    I think part of the disadvantage with small habits is they don’t make you feel like you are accomplishing anything or really growing as a person, because the result is a bunch of tiny improvements, so when you focus on them that way they seem insignificant. On the other hand, your bold projects have been exciting because the outcome was that they were really going to grow you as a person and who you are. I think for the flossing example if you had decided to become a healthy person or become a crossfit person or become a vegan then flossing could fit into that as a small thing and it would be no problem to do because it would have been part of a larger vision.

    In terms of flossing, getting the ones with handles has made it easier for me to do it every day, though I still forget sometimes. Even when I remember, I end up putting it between two teeth and then checking my email or something and I forget that it’s there and then end up throwing it away without doing all my teeth. I used to have these gratitude and learning questions I did each night before I went to sleep so maybe I will combine the two habits so I get them done more often.

  • Radhika

    Definitely agree with this, Scott. I used to think the best way to approach all this was to do something like Leo Babauta’s method–the one tooth a day method. I tried, but I just didn’t see any results.

    Although it seems way harder, the bigger goals often give you tangible results very quickly. Eg. I decided to blog once a week, almost on a whim, and already (a little past one month in), I’ve seen such tangible results that it’s almost hard to stop.

    But I still don’t make my bed every morning.

  • Prabhakar

    A different approach is suggested by Dr. B J Fogg with his ‘Tiny Habits’ program: http://tinyhabits.com

    Horses for courses (pun intended!) perhaps?

  • Dave Small

    Great material Scott. Small changes are extremely difficult (I have tried them for decades). Your example of flossing: If I try to do it, I will fail. If I put it on a list with nine other healthy habits that stretch me — I get it done.

  • Michael Bowen

    I read something similar to this on Ramit Sethi’s blog. He calls these big wins, although your terms are more focused to specifically habits.

    In the past week my bold moves have been getting up at 6am and setting out a block of time between 7 and noon to get all of my school work done. This has improved my performance in my work, because I function better in the morning, and also leaves me with vast amounts of extra time.

  • Stefano Ganddini

    This is incredibly powerful and something that I think few people realize. We are creatures of habit, and we should use this to our advantage. Once something becomes habit, we do it almost without thinking. The only difficult part is initially creating the habit. I think another important thing to realize is that this goes both ways. Creating a new habit can be just as hard as breaking an old one, no matter how big or small. While it might be hard to drop an old habit initially, once you get through the initial phase, you’ll be done with it forever.

  • Lloyd S.

    I started flossing about 20 years ago and have kept it up fairly well over the years. I started after a period where I wasn’t keeping up with my hygiene as well as I should have and got a gum infection. A visit to the dentist ended up with them doing some cleaning work below the gum line and a behavioral prescription – brush, floss and use a disinfectant mouthwash 2 times/day for 30 days. I managed to follow that protocol for the entire period, and once it was over, I became a person who brushed and flossed regularly. I guess it was the intense focus on the behavior for such a long period of time that reduced the anxiety surrounding the flossing. Flossing may not feel like a worthwhile activity, but really is super important for reducing bacteria between your teeth which slowly eat away at your tooth enamel. Somehow, forcing yourself to focus on something for a long enough period of time can reduce the anxiety of instilling a new habit.
    I hadn’t been exercising regularly last year, but decided to start walking daily. I had to start slow, due to a leg injury, and began with a slow speed and 10 minutes. I made up a table on a spreadsheet which started at 10 minutes and then added 20 seconds every day that I managed to do the activity. It did take me 7 months to do what was supposed to take 5, but I got up to an hour a day. Since then, I have been walking 3 to 5 days a week, and mostly sticking with the 60 minutes. My challenges come with occasionally increasing speed and slope. The slow daily change of 20 seconds was not all that perceptible from day to day, so my body didn’t object strenuously to the gradual increases. Most of the objection was taking much time out my schedule.

  • lingholic

    Great post as usual Scott. I agree that once an activity becomes an ingrained habit, its difficulty considerably diminishes, and so while running 10 miles may technically be 100x harder than flossing, once it becomes an ingrained habit it’s certainly not as hard anymore.

    I think starting with bold moves is a great idea, but then there’s always the issue of procrastination, and people would basically do just about anything (and find any excuse) to avoid doing bold moves.

    The way to partially get around this (well something that has worked for me anyway) is to commit yourself to do something but only for a very short period of time. For example, if you need to write every day, commit yourself to writing for 5 minutes every day (no less). The trick here is that starting is really the hardest part. Once you’ve actually started, keeping with the flow becomes much easier.

    I’d love to hear your thoughts on that. Wish you all the best for the continuation of your “Year Without English” challenge and I’m looking forward to interviewing in Korean!

    Sam

  • Nenad

    This is a very interesting and valuable insight. I will definitely consider it when working out future plans.

  • The Real CZ

    I never started flossing until I was 18-19 years old. It wasn’t from any type of habit formation building or anything. When I was 18, I went to the dentist and was starting to form cavities between my two front teeth. I don’t have those ugly black fillings between them, but they still had to do work on those two teeth to fix the problem. As you may or may not know, they stick a needle into your gums to numb your teeth before working on them. Each tooth on top have to be shot individually, and the pain is almost unbearable for the front two teeth. I had tears coming out of my eyes because that crap hurt so much. The doctor and the dental assistants told me that I wouldn’t have that procedure ever again if I start flossing. The next day, I started flossing.

  • Chris

    Scott, I learned that small changes add up to huge life changes, the same way as a snow ball grows downhill. By the way, did you read Charles Duhig’s book on the power of habits?

    Chris.

  • Nuria from Spanishcomeseasy.co

    We tend to believe that changing a small habit in our daily routine will have a small impact in our life. That’s why we don’t bother making little changes.

    I believe that if we realised our life is actually made up of small decisions, we would take those “little” changes more seriously.

  • Scott Young

    Mike,

    No, and my post shouldn’t be read to contradict his advice. My point was, rather, that the perceived one-time difficulty doesn’t scale to habits. If you wanted to install the habit of flossing, then starting with one tooth is certainly the way to go.

    Rather, my point is that sometimes there are changes you could make that appear very difficult from their one-time perspective (such as running every day) but are actually not considerably harder to install than habits that appear easy on their surface. That’s good news if you want to make a big change, but also explains why many small changes never become full habits–we don’t give them the effort they require.

    Dave,

    In my experience, the difficulty of habit formation goes with how complicated the habit is, not so much how difficult. So putting flossing on a list, in this view, doesn’t help much (but if it does help you, don’t stop!).

    My point, as previously stated, is that big changes are (relatively) easier because we give them the effort they’re due, whereas small habits like flossing require more effort than we normally suspect, so they often fail to stick. Habit creation difficulty is distinct from one-time difficulty.

    -Scott

  • ivan

    In my opinion the difference is how hard is to find the trigger. It is not about the change being hard or easy, but about remembering the new action with the trigger.
    In big changes the trigger is easier to find, while in small changes you struggle to find one.
    Ivan.

AS SEEN IN