How to change, little by little

  • Changing habits incrementally and over time is more effective than setting ambitious short-term goals.
  • This system can be applied to many areas of life. It is not just about diet or training, but a mindset that involves every aspect of life.
  • Constant small actions become integrated into your life, while large temporary efforts never belong to you.


James Clear’s idea has always been very lucid and simple: if we don’t like something in our lives, changing it by setting ambitious goals is the wrong strategy. And in fact it almost always fails. Think instead of the force a drop of water has: it is nothing in itself, but if it falls for months, years and centuries always on the same rock, it will eventually puncture it.

Clear is one of the most famous and widely followed motivators, and while I am sometimes wary of these kinds of people, I admit that his method has a foundation and above all is effective. The reason is quickly stated: it is a system based-as the name implies-on “Atomic Habits”, and that is, on habits so small that they are so down to the atomic level.

What he proposes consists of two steps: that of realizing that we are wrong in setting ourselves overly large and ambitious goals for change and, as a result, we are wrong in the ways to achieve them. And finally the phase of program implementation: that of atomic habits.

Another interesting aspect of his system is that it can be applied to very many if not almost all areas of life. Wherever you need to change course or even just correct your course a little, the method can help you a lot. Because it is not a diet or a workout but a mindset that involves-if you want it-any area of your life.

Maybe it happened to you

Let’s face it: many of us have gone on a diet at some point in our lives. We are talking in this case about the kind of diet that we will call “cosmetic,” that is, made for aesthetic reasons only, without even touching on diets prescribed by specialists for more serious clinical reasons.

If you had a lot of willpower, it is possible that it also succeeded: you respected it for months and months, and it repaid you with a leaner physique that was perhaps identical to the idea you had in your head. Congratulations: you did it. Except to find that when the restriction period was over, maintaining the new weight was increasingly difficult: what you had lost you had regained, sometimes (often) much faster than it had taken you to lose it.

The goal you had set for yourself was too ambitious, and above all, that change you had sought (and also achieved, in many cases) was contained in a precise parenthesis of your life: that of dieting.

What Clear proposes is a method that, while seemingly simple, promises to change your outlook on life and your habits.

To understand this better, imagine habits as impenetrable fortresses: there are the habit of sleeping time, the habit of a certain type of food, those related to work or leisure. As already mentioned, virtually every aspect of your life-if you don’t like it-can be changed with this system.

Now imagine overcoming your old, ineffective habits by building new ones. If you think about it a bit, you are trying to build new fortresses by measuring yourself against those that you have taken-sometimes despite yourself-decades to build. So how can you expect to form (build) a new and equally powerful habit in a very short time? You cannot, and that is why so many methods fail: because they do not lead to permanently replacing old habits with new ones but only propose a particular regimen, circumscribed in time. And very tiring to comply with. In short: the one who diets or trains in a certain way is not exactly you but is “you in the dieting period.”

Little by little

If one were to summarize Clear’s method in other words, it could be described as follows:

Changing small habits that are undemanding but intervals over time consistently is infinitely more effective than changing some very large ones for only a limited period of time.

As we often tell you: habits form behaviors, and to change behaviors you have to change habits.

But I told you it was an easy and very elastic system, and it is.
Its “philosophical” basis is that of incremental changes: small and frequent instead of large and occasional. The human mind adapts poorly to titanic efforts and often fails at change because it sets goals that are out of reach, require great effort, and whose results it does not readily perceive.

Instead, comforting it with small rewards is the key. Clear gives an example that can explain many things, both of incremental improvements and of the mind’s need to “see” them.

Since these are “atomic” and therefore tiny habits, it is sometimes not easy to see what effect they have, partly because the changes they produce are so minimal (in the short term) as to be imperceptible. For example, if you want to save money, try to visualize your effort by simply putting all the money you are putting aside into a transparent jar.
If you have unhealthy habits, analyze why they are triggered (like stress, if you have harmful eating behaviors) and replace them with other, healthy ones: for example, change the type of food you consume, drink tasty but healthy drinks (herbal teas, coffee, tea) instead of alcohol.

A practical case

For quite some time I have realized that I have been putting Clear’s theories into practice without even realizing it. Of course, my mind knew it perfectly well, it just forgot to point it out to me.

For the past few months I have been getting up, drinking a glass of water, eating a light breakfast and practicing the Five Tibetans. Immediately afterwards I meditate for 15 minutes.
It is my morning routine and it is like that, always, 7 days a week. How can I do it? Well, it’s so easy! Breakfast is a pleasure and the Five Tibetans takes me 5 minutes. Meditation is wonderful, especially in the morning, partly because the mind is still immersed in a dreamlike environment and is particularly creative in the visualizations it produces. Or at least that’s how it happens to me.

What is certain is that if I had practiced this routine for only one week, nothing would have changed: I wouldn’t have even noticed!

Prolonging it for months and months, on the other hand, has produced a lot of results: the physique is more toned, the mood is balanced, and the mind is gratified by the fact that it has already done several things at the beginning of the day. And when I think about how much it costs me to do this, I have to admit that-it costs me nothing!

This is just one example, and the beauty is that any aspect of your life can be changed, you just have to do it little by little, confident that the results will be seen but only in the medium or long term.

Do you do little or no movement? Instead of thinking that you should walk 3 hours at least twice a week, set a simpler-easier goal-even as easy-as doing it for 15 minutes but every day.

And of examples there can be endless, and all inspired by the one rule you can adopt easily and forever, like a new mantra:

Do lots of little things all the time instead of doing very few and very big things for a short time.

The former will succeed you, the latter very unlikely.
And finally: the former will transform you and become part of you, the latter will never belong to you.


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