The power of small incremental change

This post is Step 8 of Unstuck’s 30-Day Habit Builder. Please find all the content here. You can sign up for the free email program here

incremental change

In today’s pop-up notification world, it’s hard to find time for things that aren’t checking emails, refreshing social media, or catching up on Netflix. The fire hose of distractions, messages, and new shows to binge-watch is never-ending and it makes it seemingly impossible to make progress on new habits or to find your way back to old ones. 

If you’re having trouble getting into the daily swing of knitting, sketching, or learning to play the xylophone, here are a few tips to get you started.

Start small and build

A good way to get into a daily rhythm is to approach things in ten-minute increments. After all, devoting ten minutes of your day to something isn’t too daunting, is it? 

Small incremental changes are also easier to integrate into your normal routine than sweeping, radical changes. (If someone told me to find an hour in the day for reading or exercising, I might have a meltdown.) But ten minutes? No problem. That could be right after breakfast or when you get home from work, or as you’re getting ready for bed. From then, you build on it like a weightlifter adding more weights to the bar.

Read longer, run farther, concentrate harder — if you add ten extra minutes to your routine a week, the experience won’t feel too disruptive.

Don’t underestimate incremental change

A small commitment may seem meaningless, but there’s plenty of research that backs up the power of incremental change. A study conducted by M.J. Adams found that the “reading gap” can be hugely reduced just by reading ten more minutes per day.

On average, a student reading for ten minutes a day will read around 700,000 more words per year — vaulting them into the highest percentiles of readers. It’s an approach you can embrace on the smaller scale too. Say you want to read one of those doorstop classic 800-page books like Anna Karenina. Break that up into just 25 pages per day, and you’ll have read it within a month.

Try out the concept of “Kaizen”

The Japanese call the process of making big life changes through small, incremental steps “kaizen.” It translates to “change for better,” or “continual improvement,” and has been implemented at all levels of society.

Through kaizen, you can eliminate waste, improve your workflow, or even tackle smaller tasks like home improvement through daily routine. Rather than completely overhaul and reorganize in the hopes of improvement, kaizen centers on how ideas can develop over time and how small changes can have big results if they’re nurtured properly.

Cut back on bad habits through small changes

Changing your diet can be depressing, but if you cycle out one thing at a time — say, replacing sides of fries with salads or an afternoon cookie with a piece of fruit — then you can revamp less drastically with similar results. Changing one meal at a time is less intimidating.

Similarly, do you check your emails too often? Slowing it down to an hourly routine, then every ninety minutes, then every two hours, can change the way you work. Just be sure to reward yourself for sticking to a routine and it’ll make it even easier.

Find the power in short and sweet

A study by Canada’s McMaster University found that “high-intensity” training can be equally effective as long bouts of working out and an even bigger time-saver.

It’s called the “overload principle”: If you devote yourself to doing something every day, like riding a bike, even if for just a short time, it’s just as helpful as going on longer rides more intermittently.

Let a checklist motivate you

The Toyota production line is famed for using kaizen methods to effect improvements. Their efforts are guided by a simple checklist: Plan, Do, Check, Act. Simply lay out your plan, whatever it is, then do it and check your results. Are you enjoying the process? Are you gaining momentum toward a larger goal? Then act accordingly — maybe adding a few more minutes, pages, laps, or set every week.

Before long, you’ll have an improved attitude and you can get to work on the next thing you want to improve about your daily routine.


Isaac Belmont is an editor, news producer, writer, and ghostwriter based in Queens, New York.


Top image by Unstuck artist-in-residence Bridgette Zou (This Feels Nice Series, 2017, © Bridgette Zou)

More Unstuck Advice

6 work habits of highly-effective introverts Which sounds like a dream job to you? Spending your day brainstorming and chatting with co-workers in an open-plan office? A day with no ...
5 steps to bounce back from a bad day A bad day starts when you spill coffee everywhere on your way to work. Then you space out about the important tasks you had to get done. The icing...
How “not to-do” lists saved my life I used to be a chronic maker of to-do lists. My lists lived on little scraps of paper, the back on envelopes, and Post-It notes. I would buy planners ...