Why Small Changes Can Have Big Benefits

I can still remember mornings with toddlers like they were yesterday. The logistics of a morning routine seemed simple enough — breakfast in, warm clothes on, and out the door. Yet any parent can tell you that achieving these outcomes with a two-year-old is far from simple.

“No!!! Noooooo!!!!” I remember my 2-year-old screaming as I wrestled him into his snow pants. Mittens seemed to fly off the moment they went on and though he hadn’t yet learned the game “stiff as a board” it was clear he was an expert player.

When toddler power struggles hit, I initially thought that I just needed to improve my efficiency to allow for extended mitten throwing time. I got breakfast ready the night before, made sure that I gave clear choices as we got ready to go, and focused on pushing the train forward. I mapped out my game plan with the precision of an experienced engineer.

None of this had the desired outcome on the mitten front.

After weeks of snowpants-wrestling, I stumbled into a minor routine change. One morning, jammies still on, we snuggled up and read a short book before the day began. It wasn’t until we were out the door that day a few minutes early that I realized we had emerged from the house fully outfitted in boots, snowpants, and mittens. Hardly a tear had been shed. Was this a miracle?

Small changes in the right places.

The more likely explanation was that I had inadvertently stumbled upon a keystone habit.

In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg writes, “Keystone habits offer what is known within academic literature as ‘small wins.’ They help other habits to flourish by creating new structures, and they establish cultures where change becomes contagious.”

Research on keystone habits is fascinating. When people habitually exercise, they tend to start eating better and become more productive at work too. Starting a tradition of family meals can boost children’s grades and strengthen their emotional control.

Small changes in the right places can have cascading effects.

Chart your change thoughtfully.

While New Year’s tends to be the time when we map out the things that we would like to change in our lives, many of us make goals year round. Too often, we charge forth with unbridled enthusiasm, charting a lofty course for our new lease on life. In our gusto for huge change, we forget to pay attention to the many small, but powerful levers in our lives. Keystone habits can certainly be hard to identify in the moment. Sometimes it is only in retrospect that we see why they are so powerful.

Take my morning routine, for example. My son wasn’t eager to jump into his snow pants because of the specific book I read to him. Instead, that little shift in our routine meant that I had an opportunity to connect with him before the flurry of morning activity. Connection is the primary way children regulate their strong emotions. By connecting first, I was priming my son’s brain with feelings of calm and security so that he was better able to handle the out-the-door routine ahead. Plus doing it every day (or as often as possible) meant that he could depend on it as part of the routine.

Think small. Be gentle with yourself when it falls apart.

Let’s be clear, we should all be wary of promises like, “Just snuggle with your child for two minutes and everything will fall into place from there!” This isn’t just obnoxious, it is also unrealistic. Children aren’t robots and we are all doing the best we can. Just because our kids can do something some of the time, doesn’t mean they can do it all the time. There will be days where our kids will throw their mittens and the book across the room. But the science of keystone habits reminds us that when we are looking to change a pattern, it can be helpful to start strategic and small. Change in the right place can bring other changes within reach. And when it falls apart sometimes, which it will, the right keystone habits increases our capacity to handle it.

Five ways to get started:

  • Prioritize connection. We human beings are wired to connect. Look for simple ways to connect. Make it a routine and watch the effects cascade.
  • Prioritize movement. Our bodies and brains are connected. Movement recharges our brain, gives us energy, and regulates our mood. There are a slew of cascading benefits that come from regular movement.
  • Reflect. Doing the same thing over and over without results is a recipe for setbacks. Look at the big picture to discover what might you be missing? What else could you try? Are there emotional or physical needs that aren’t being met?
  • Don’t work on everything at once. Even if the changes are small, tackling ten keystone habits is too exhausting. Pick one or two and focus on habits and process more than outcomes.
  • Learn about your brain. Understanding the brain science of behavior change can work against feelings of personal failure (“I’m just not a good enough parent to do this.”) and help you build on your strengths (“It makes sense that we need to regulate first before we can do hard things.”)