I. What about Bob?
I love movies. Watching movies is one of my favorite off-task activities. Since I’m a therapist, it probably comes as no surprise that I have a fondness for movies that involve therapists. Of those movies, one of my favorites has to be the Bill Murray/Richard Dreyfuss comedy “What about Bob?” True, the portrayal of Dreyfuss as a therapist is less than flattering… but the movie is hilarious. At the beginning of the movie, Dreyfuss gives Murray’s super-neurotic character, Bob some advice. He tells him to take “Baby steps.” Do one little thing, then do another little thing…. Keep going until you get to where you want to go. Using this advice, Murray is able to leave his apartment and make his way “on vacation” to New England where he then intrudes upon Dreyfuss’ family vacation. Much hilarity ensues.
Now, it might seem strange to take therapy advice from a goofy comedy, but I’ve always said that good advice is good advice regardless of the source. Frankly, the idea of making big changes by taking lots of little steps makes sense to me. Back when I was a piano teacher, there would always come a time where my students would start freaking out over learning their first long piece. “It’s TOO long! I can’t do it!” Is what I would hear. I would ask them a question my mom posed to me when I was young. I would ask them, “How do you eat an elephant?” Inevitably, they would scrunch their faces up, think about it… then say “I don’t know.” The answer is “ONE BITE AT A TIME.” Like baby steps in “What about Bob?” you eat an elephant (i.e. Tackle a big problem) by taking the first step (or bite) and then do the next thing and the next until you get to where you need to go (or there’s no more elephant left). What if you aren’t hungry for elephant? Then I guess you’re out of luck.
II. Defining micro-change
This idea of taking lots of little steps to solve problems is what I’ve come to term “micro-change.” Big changes take lots of work. Big changes take lots of planning. Big changes take significant sacrifices and resources to make them happen. This is why people often avoid making big changes or start but never succeed in completing big changes in their lives. How many times have you thought how nice it would be to have something about your life be different, but when you sat down and looked at the situation you said “Nah, too much work.” I know I’ve done this more times than I like to admit.
Using micro-change we take a different approach. We decide on a goal (something big or long range) and then simply decide on what the first steps are going to be. Then we focus our efforts on the first easily attainable objective. We focus all our efforts like a laser on accomplishing that objective. Once it’s done, we then move on to the next step. We don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the end goal or how long it’s going to take. We just focus on where we are at and what we are doing until we get the step done.
I like to use this strategy with diet and exercise changes. Instead of saying “I need to lose 50 pounds, deadlift 500 pounds and get to 12% body fat.” (All measurable and attainable goals… but pretty big and daunting all at once). I might say, for the next week I’m going to go to the gym at least twice and stop drinking regular sodas.” What seems less daunting? It’s really hard to lose a lot of weight. It’s really hard to lift heavy. It’s easy to cut back on sodas (and thus calories) for a week and commit to going the gym a couple of times. At the end of the week I can look back and see exactly how I did and then set new short term objectives. If every week I lift a little more than the week before while cleaning up my diet a little more, I will lose weight and get stronger. Making all the lifestyle changes needed to lose a lot of weight is scary and confusing, but making one small change at a time and giving the change time to become a habit is easier.
I’ve used this same strategy to teach kids how to organize for school and get on top of homework. I’ve used this strategy to help people overcome anxiety and fears (also known as gradual exposure therapy). I’ve become a big fan of doing “lots of little bits” to get “big bits” done. My motto is “keep it easy.”
III. Guidelines to implement micro-change strategy
So, here are some tips on how to plan out and use this strategy to make changes in your life or your child’s life.
A. Pick clear, well defined goals (measurable)
For this strategy to work, you need a clear target…. Something to shoot for. While having a goal of “being happy” is nice, what does that mean? What’s happy for you? How would I, as your therapist, be able to quantify and measure happiness? Is it how often you smile? Is it how many friends you have? Pick a measurable goal. “I will lose 20 pounds” or “I will see 16 clients a week” are measurable. Whatever it is you want to change, focus on those things you can count and craft your goals around that.
Additionally, make sure you make note of your baseline when you start. It’s important to know where you are at so that you can see where you are going as you make your goals.
B. Break goals up into smaller objectives
This is the essence of micro-change. Figure out the steps you need to take to accomplish your goals. Sometimes, you will be able to map the whole process out from beginning to end. At other times, you may be able to figure out the first steps, but later steps may not be clear (depending on how those first steps go). Either way, figure out small, attainable first steps and take action to accomplish them. For that 20 pound weight loss goal, cutting out sodas might be a great first step, followed by cutting back on starchy carbs and then upping protein intake. Making one change a week will lead to a virtual overhaul of one’s eating habits in the space of a month or two. In the case of “seeing 16 clients a week” a goal might be to publish 2 articles this month (and then do it again next month) to get my name out there. Another step might be to schedule a free community talk based on one of my articles in the next month to attract new clients.
C. Pick realistic target dates
Give yourself deadlines. If you have an objective but no end date, it becomes very easy to procrastinate and put things off. By giving yourself deadlines, you add a little bit of urgency. However, it is crucial that your target dates are realistic. Losing 20 lbs in a month is not a realistic target date. Losing 6-8 pounds in a month becomes more realistic. Cutting out soda for a week is easy…. Cutting out soda forever might be impossible. I can always re-commit to no soda week after week as long as that change is helping meet my goal. If anything, it is better to be a little more liberal with your target dates just to give yourself enough wiggle room for success.
D. Collect data on progress
Since your goals are measurable, it makes sense to measure them. If you don’t, how do you know if you are making progress? I can make the goal of losing weight… but if I never weigh myself, measure my body, try on old clothes that did not use to fit… how do I know I’m making progress? What if I’m making progress and then I choose a change that doesn’t work? If I’m collecting data, that will be reflected and I can make adjustments to my plan sooner.
E. Reward yourself and celebrate your little victories
Finally, you need to make every effort to reward yourself and celebrate your successes. It might not seem like a big deal that you cut out soda for a week. It’s such a little thing. However, you made a commitment and you met it. That deserves a pat on the back. We are creatures that thrive on reinforcement. That’s what drives our behaviors. So, reinforce your positive changes. Celebrate your daily victories and be proud of yourself. This will help keep your enthusiasm and motivation up while you transform your life.
So, take those baby steps. Eat that elephant. Celebrate the little victories and change your life! I know you can do it. Please tell me about times you’ve changed your life with micro-change in the comments section below. I look forward to hearing from you.
If you wish to learn more about micro-change or would like to schedule a free consultation with me, please call 484-693-0582 , email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or click on the “schedule appointment” button on the right side of this page.
©2013 Erik Young Counseling LLC