Sunél’s Blog | Habits of Small Things

Sunél Veldtman, | 31 January 2020

Habits, scientists say, emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort (Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit).  They are the legs of resolutions and without them, resolutions typically fail. Research increasingly shows that they are worth pursuing (the good kind at least) and that it is even possible to change behaviour by making tiny changes to habits.

Most of us live unsustainable lives, with constant demands on our time and money leaving us feeling out of control. We sleep too little, reach for caffeine, alcohol or sugar to get us through our days, don’t exercise enough and have lost connection with our support structures. We don’t have time to see our families, to take care of our money, never mind just being! We are, most of us, showcases for behavioural stress and in dire need of huge behavioural changes.

Behavioural stresses are often seen in our struggle with money. When we don’t take care of our money it shows up in different destructive behaviours which can have dire consequences for many: sporadic bursts of attention typically result in haphazard strategies; obsessive or meddling behaviour often interferes with the success of long-term investment strategies; lack of any attention, self-fulfilling.   All these behaviours need changing.

Occasionally, you might get a wake-up call, like a friend who has had to cut short his/her dream holiday after being struck down by a virus.  Their situation, possibly the result of a badly compromised immune system, may signal to you the need to change your behaviour.  Most often, when faced with this awareness we react by setting hairy goals, only to fail again all too soon.

How then do we realise a much-needed change in behaviour? By making micro changes in our habits. This idea isn’t new, but we’ve been so brainwashed into thinking a big change is best, that we feel silly to try it and often turn away from the small steps that lead to success. Habits, according to Duke University, comprise 40 percent of our behaviour every day. So, it is essential for any behavioural change that you build habits that actually stick and work. James Clear in his book, Atomic Habits, condenses this dense area of research into a simple, strategic guide on building new habits that get you closer to the life you want (I highly recommend this concise, practical and effective read).

Last year, I resolved to ‘win my mornings’ – I’ve been more of a late-starter and performed better in the afternoon.  However, half-way through the year, I realised that I had bitten off too much.  My goal was too big and too vague. There was no way I could get to exercising, drinking health tea, journaling and prayer and meditation before the kids woke up every morning. So, towards the end of the year, I decided to focus only on my gratitude journal, which was the one thing I could manage through the colossal changes in our lives (due to our move). My gratitude journal, where I note three very specific things I’m grateful for every day, has become ingrained in my routine. I now reach for my journal as I open my eyes every morning. And as James Clear says, I have made essential progress in my health, happiness and life in general.   

Changing behaviours by changing habits means starting small.  So small that, yes, it can feel stupid. Just remembering to drink one vitamin tablet a day or reading one paragraph every night in a real book, is the kind of small I mean. Experts say that this is what will get you to your goal of an improved immune system or reading 10 books a year or like me, growing gratitude. Perhaps you can gain control of your money by keeping your wallet tidy or by dropping your habit of checking in on your investments every day. If it doesn’t feel stupid, it’s probably too big.

It is the same principle as compound interest – over time, small additional gains by interest-on-interest make an exponential, massive difference to the outcome for investors. Tiny changes in habits result in massive changes in behaviour in the long run.

Whatever it is that you need to change, think of the tiniest habit you can practice, then focus all your attention on that one thing!

Ps. I’d love to know which small habit will be your change-maker.