The Huge Power of Small Commitments

by Mark on April 13, 2010

Lately I’ve been thinking about how small changes that are continued on a consistent basis over long periods of time can lead to massive changes. The example that I mentioned in yesterday’s weekly status update was that of the Grand Canyon. This wonder of the world was created by small, almost imperceptible changes year in and year out over thousands of years. Small change can be powerful.

In Beat the Pros by Being a “Know-Nothing Investor”, I explained how $1,000 per year (about $83.33 per month) will compound into large sums of money if consistently invested in the S&P 500. This is something that really is in the reach of the vast majority of Americans (or could be if they stopped making excuses), but how many people do it? Most people wait quite a few years before getting serious about investing. Why is this? It is probably because few people recognize the power of small changes practiced consistently. This is especially true in areas subject to the power of compounding such as investing. When compounding is involved, there is a snowball effect where the change begins to accelerate.

Even when changes don’t compound, small changes add up.  This is the basic principle underlying the Japanese practice of kaizen, which is a very deliberate process of continuous improvement. An extraordinary dedication to kaizen was a major factor in allowing Toyota to overtake General Motors as the automotive sales leader.

Use Small Commitments to Make Big Changes

By making small, but strong commitments to ourselves, we can begin to move ourselves in a consistent direction and finally begin to see some major changes. If we don’t make a strong commitment, then it is too easy to slide right back where we started after trying to make a change. Years can go by without seeing any progress. Has this ever happened to you? I know it has happened to me. I have been promising myself that I would get in shape for many years. I have started to exercise on numerous occasions, but my previous efforts have not been backed by strong commitments.

When I started this blog, I committed myself to 4 new blog posts a week (plus a Friday summary post). It hasn’t been easy, and I have been seriously tempted on several occasions to break my commitment. I have a day job that requires overtime, and my sleep habits are poor, so I am often tired. It would be easy to convince myself that I don’t need to meet this standard every week. After all, nobody is perfect.  In the end I decided that I would seriously be risking losing my momentum if I allowed even a single exception. For the time being, I will continue my current posting schedule and condition the habit even stronger, which should make my commitment easier over time.

Eliminate Quitting as an Option

A few years ago I made an attempt at blogging, and it soon floundered. I quickly gave up. I lacked a strong commitment to a specific, consistent standard. I think that this is an important point. When we set a standard for ourselves that is very specific, we can easily tell if we have failed to hold ourselves to the standard. And by refusing to allow even a single exception, we take the decision to quit completely out of the equation. It’s no longer an option. When there is no decision to be made, there is no chance that your brain will go through the debating process that could convince you to not take action just this one time, which of course is never just this one time.

This is quite often the problem when people want to exercise but they are not specific about it. We tell ourselves that we will exercise today without specifying when. Our brains convince us that we will exercise a little later. Then a little later our brains convince us that it will be okay if we wait just a little longer. Then our brains convince us that it will be all right to skip exercising just for today.  And then tomorrow our brain convinces us that taking two days off in a row won’t kill us. By the time we have skipped three days in a row, the routine is toast.

As part of the 90-Day Challenge, I committed myself to writing from 6:15 AM to 6:45 AM every single morning for the month of April. It’s a fairly small commitment, but consistently applied it should move me decisively in the direction of my goal to publish 2 e-books by the end of the quarter. It’s a very specific, consistent standard, and I have mentally eliminated the option of quitting as a possible decision. I will reevaluate this standard at the end of April, but I am going to stick with my commitment. Getting rid of the choice of whether to take action or not is actually quite liberating!

What small change could you commit to that would make a big difference in your life?

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