A Wall Street tech leader explains how small behavioral changes lead to major self-improvement
Whether trying to lose weight, save money, or get organized, we’re always setting goals and making resolutions but rarely following through on them. Determination and willpower aren’t strong enough to defeat our mass of ingrained habits; to succeed we have to learn how to focus our self-control on precise behavioral targets and overwhelm them, according to longtime Wall Street technology strategist Caroline Arnold.
Small Move, Big Change is Arnold’s guide to turning broad personal goals into meaningful and discrete behavioral changes that lead to permanent improvement. A microresolution is easily kept and designed to nail a self-improvement target exactly and deliver benefits immediately. While the traditional resolution promises rewards on a distant “someday,” a microresolution rewards us today by instantly altering our routines and, ultimately, ourselves.
A wife, mother, and business innovator, Arnold uses her own successes and failures as case studies. Contrasting her career success with her personal resolution failures, Arnold recounts how by analyzing her own behavior she was able to reengineer her resolutions so that they were guaranteed to succeed every time, from losing weight to improving key relationships. Providing scores of engaging examples from the wide circle of colleagues and friends who practice her microresolution method, Arnold also shows how her system is supported by new willpower and habit science.
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Caroline Arnold has been a technology leader on Wall Street for more than a decade, managing some of the financial industry's most complex and visible assignments. She received the Wall Street & Technology Award for Innovation for building the auction system for the Google IPO, and her name appears on technology patents pending. She now serves as a managing director at a leading Wall Street investment bank. Arnold grew up in the San Franciso Bay Area and graduated from the University of California Berkeley with a degree in English literature. She lives in New York City with her husband and daughter.
It’s late at night as I head up the steep drive to my parents’ house, the house I grew up in. I’m just off the plane from New York, and as soon as I cut the engine on my rental car I can hear the crickets chirping in the warm California night. My long day of travel at an end, I let my head fall back against the seat and I listen for a moment. I’m home.
An outside light illuminates the pathway to the front door; inside, the house is dark, my parents asleep. I roll my bag along the pebbled path and slip inside. I’m thirsty, hungry, and tired; my plane was two hours late getting in. But I don’t stop for a glass of water or to check what’s in the fridge. I go straight to the pantry, open the door, and hang up my car keys on an old brass rack where two other key rings dangle in the dark.
Becoming a licensed driver is a rite of passage in the California suburbs, where you can’t really get anywhere without a car. I counted the days to my sixteenth birthday and couldn’t wait to get behind the wheel. I learned to hang up the car keys as soon as I came home on the day I passed my driving test—over twenty-five years ago. My new California driver’s license meant there would now be three drivers sharing two cars. Keys hidden in purses or pants pockets or tossed onto a bureau meant frustration and lost time. “Hang up the keys!” my parents would shout as soon as I stepped in the door.
But tonight I’ve arrived in a rental car only I am authorized to drive. My parents each have a car parked in the driveway. We aren’t going to share cars, so why hang up the keys? Why beeline for the hook in the dark?
The answer holds the secret to achieving continuous and sustainable self-improvement. If only I had known the answer all those years ago, every one of my resolutions since would have succeeded.
Introduction: Why Resolutions Fail
I will lose weight.
I will be neat.
I will be on time.
I will get out of debt.
I will be thin by summer.
I will get ahead at work.
I will be more loving.
I will be assertive.
I will get in shape.
I will get organized.
I will quit smoking.
I won’t be defensive.
I will be a better person.
Why is it so hard to keep our resolutions? We begin with enthusiasm and determination, yet our will falters and our resolutions fizzle. And every time we break a resolution—a promise we make ourselves to improve our lives—we feel demoralized, powerless to make progress and realize our goals.
Even highly disciplined and successful individuals—winners—fail at self-improvement initiatives. We’re all losers when it comes to the New Year’s resolution, our collective failure rate a spectacular 88 percent. We run in place like hamsters on a wheel, renewing and forsaking the same resolutions in an annual cycle, telling ourselves that if we only had more resolve, more willpower, more character, we could force a breakthrough to a better self. We begin each year (or birthday or season or Monday morning) with fresh determination, muster our willpower, tweak our resolutions, and try again. Over time, the pattern of making and breaking resolutions becomes familiar and demoralizing. We go on making resolutions, but we expect to fail.
What if instead of failing annually at our New Year’s resolutions, we made strategic and targeted resolutions year-round that were guaranteed to succeed and transform us permanently? What if our resolutions brought us immediate rewards, raised our self-awareness, and energized our self-improvement efforts? What if every time we made a resolution we actually expected to succeed?
Small Move, Big Change is about making resolutions that succeed every time. By rethinking will power, and refocusing your resolutions, you can master the art of instant and sustainable self-improvement, achieving personal goals that once seemed out of reach. Transparent successes will take the place of mystifying failures, optimism will replace hopelessness, confidence will replace helplessness. You will learn how to succeed instead of fail; indeed, you will learn to expect success.
The purpose of this book is to teach you how to translate broad personal goals into microresolutions that can be managed, measured, and kept. A microresolution is a compact and powerful commitment designed to nail a precise behavioral target exactly and deliver benefits immediately. Rather than suffering a collapse of willpower after weeks of exhausting effort, you will learn how to overpower your objective through strategic focus and targeted self-control. Your resolutions will pay off the day you start and are sustainable for a lifetime. Microresolutions succeed in every self-improvement category, whether your goal is losing weight, improving a relationship, or saving money.
For most of my life I lived the common experience in resolution making—I failed nearly all the time. These personal failures were a mystery to me, as I was very successful in my career on Wall Street and in nurturing a happy and rewarding family life. I put in long hours running a global department numbering nearly five hundred people, meeting demanding deadlines, and coaching careers; I was devoted to my family, to the needs of my young daughter, husband, and aging parents; I was engaged in charities and active in my community. But despite my capacity to deliver for others and the take-no-prisoners attitude I brought to the most challenging career assignments, I struggled to keep the personal commitments I made to myself, from going to the gym regularly to spending more time with my family. With all my energy and determination, I wondered why my resolutions had succeeded only a handful of times.
Finally, after a particularly painful resolution flop, I tried something different. I assigned myself a small but meaningful behavioral change—a microresolution—and I succeeded in changing myself immediately and permanently. Yet it was only after succeeding at several more microresolutions modeled on the first that I realized I had stumbled onto a method for making targeted commitments that succeeded virtually every time. I began reaching goals that had been years deferred: I lost weight and got in shape; I became tidier and better organized; I improved my relationships and my finances. Excited by my progress, I began to share my system with business colleagues, friends, and family who in turn passed the system on to others. My thriving test lab led me to a simple conclusion: Microresolutions work.
We live in the age of the small and powerful, where micro computer chips, tablets, iPods, smart phones, and their apps drive productivity at work and at home. Microfinancing is eliminating poverty one family at a time. Nanotechnology is revolutionizing medicine. Critical communications arrive in 140-character tweets, hitting global distribution lists in microseconds. These tools are targeted, designed to fill a specific need exactly and deliver value immediately. So it is with microresolutions—each is designed to hit a specific personal-improvement target exactly and deliver benefits immediately.
Our fast-paced, multitasking days are packed so full that the thought of adding one more to-do, meeting one more need, or pursuing one new personal objective can be overwhelming. Microresolutions slip easily into our crowded lives, quietly working their magic while we go on juggling schedules and meeting endless obligations. Indeed, microresolutions make it possible to achieve continuous self-improvement without breaking a sweat.
Microresolutions are fun and easy and take effect immediately. But before plunging into the mechanics of microresolutions—how and why they work—we should first ask ourselves, why do traditional resolutions so often end in defeat?
Why Resolutions Fail
We all know someone who transformed himself through an act of will—went from flabby to fit, from spendthrift to investor, from slob to house-proud neat freak. At one time or another, nearly all of us succeed in reaching some ambitious personal goal such as running the marathon or finishing a degree. But more familiar are the resolutions we make on New Year’s Day and abandon in March, the midnight champagne a distant memory and our forsaken resolutions a lingering and dispiriting hangover. The broken New Year’s resolution is a cultural staple, fodder for countless punch lines poking fun at the universal folly of self-improvement. We laugh along, in on the joke, yet the promises we make ourselves are serious, not silly. With so much on the line, why do we fail so often?We Make the Wrong Resolutions
Google “New Year’s resolutions” and you’ll turn up dozens of links devoted to popular and worthwhile personal goals. Most of these are what I call wannabe resolutions: I will be fit, I will be organized, I will be assertive. These iconic resolutions are very much like wishes in disguise: I wish I were buff, I wish I were on top of my game, I wish I weren’t such a doormat. These resolutions focus on being, not doing.
Years ago in drama class I learned from a master that to act means to do, not to be. Many young actors make the mistake of trying to be onstage, playing “I’m angry,” “I’m sad,” “I’m tough.” But impersonating the qualities and emotions of a character—“I’m an angry tough guy with a heart of gold”—leaves these actors little to do onstage. In assuming a persona, they miss out on the real action of the drama, the process by which their character grows and becomes emotional. Great actors understand that the secret to behaving and feeling like a character is to focus on what the character does. They analyze how the character’s explicit actions reveal his objectives, attitudes, and values. They concentrate on playing each action fully, and the sequence of actions adds up to an authentic characterization, a true experience, and an emotional response from themselves and from the audience. The acting lesson? If you focus on doing what the character does, being the character will follow.*
The same lesson applies to the resolutions you make and hope to keep. If you resolve to be organized, you’ll likely find yourself flashing a virtual BE ORGANIZED! sign in your head every time you pick up the mail or sit down at your desk. But browbeating yourself to “be organized” every moment of the day will soon exhaust your will to change. Like an actor onstage trying to impersonate an angry tough guy, your focus is in the wrong place. Rather than commanding yourself to be what you are not—an organized person—you must define explicit actions to practice, one by one, until you begin to do what an organized person does automatically.
Microresolutions focus on doing, not being. Being different follows, rather than precedes, deliberate action.We Depend Solely on Willpower to Succeed
Wannabe resolutions are stimulated by powerful fantasies of a future self. Imagining ourselves happier, fitter, or more financially secure inspires us and ignites our will to change. If our goal is to be slim and fit, we visualize ourselves looking svelte on the beach come summer and stick a buff pinup on the fridge to bolster our resolve. Our dream self is so inspiring that we feel certain we can sustain our will no matter how demanding the regimen we adopt to reach our goal. But before opening day at the beach our will collapses, thwarted by the long-established behaviors that sustain our everyday lives. We chastise ourselves for our lack of self-control, but in fact our willpower was simply outmatched by the tenacity of our habits, attitudes, and routines.
We are each driven by a system of unconscious habits and preferences nurtured early in life and entrenched through repetition. These established behaviors and attitudes form a kind of autopilot, which quietly and efficiently manages most of the routine tasks and decision making that we perform each day, preserving precious mental energy and initiative for new learning, problem solving, and idea generation. We don’t have to concentrate to tie our shoes—autopilot ties them for us. Autopilot makes the coffee, locks the door, and drives the car. But your autopilot may also skip the gym, binge on sweets, overspend, or snap at your spouse. Operating largely unnoticed, the deeply rooted habits of autopilot drive individual outcomes, both good and bad. New behavioral research confirms that we are neither aware of nor in control of the routines that govern our lives. As British researchers summarized in a recent study published in Health Psychology, “[habit] automaticity may be broken down into a number of features: lack of awareness, mental efficiency, lack of control and lack of conscious intent.”* In other words, we don’t think about what we’re doing; we just do it, unaware of how our autopilot drives us toward success or failure.
When we decide to improve ourselves—to shake things up—we run straight into resistance from autopilot. While the autopilot system in a car can easily be switched off so that the driver can resume control, disabling any part of your personal autopilot requires real effort. Autopilot likes routine and resists change. The more change we impose on ourselves, the more resistance we must overcome. And yet we nearly always shoot for an instant transformation, resolving to be slim, to be neat, to be on time. Such wannabe resolutions require changing scores of behaviors and put us broadly at war with autopilot. Resolving to be slim means changing your habits in almost every eating circumstance: what you eat, how often you eat, how much you eat, the way you eat. Suddenly every action, every choice demands scrutiny, conscious effort, and willpower.
In a seminal 2000 study on the dynamics of willpower, researchers Mark Muraven and Roy Baumeister demonstrated that self-control is a limited, physiological resource that is easily exhausted:
We found that after an act of self-control, subsequent unrelated self-control operations suffer. . . . After resisting temptations, people perform more poorly on tests of vigilance and are less able to resist subsequent temptations.*
The more we draw on our willpower, the sooner it gives out. The broad resolutions we favor place unreasonable demands on our self-control. In order to muscle through a behavioral change, our willpower has to wrestle autopilot all day long—no wonder we cry uncle before we make it to the beach! Despite our determination to succeed, after a few weeks of valiant battle our willpower collapses, outmatched by the entrenched habits and preferences that quietly rule our lives.
The willpower-driven resolution is a top-down approach to self-improvement—we command ourselves to be different and try to force our behavior and attitudes into line. The microresolution system is a bottom-up approach, focusing relentlessly on one or two significant behavioral changes until they are driven into autopilot, where they require no deliberate effort—willpower—to sustain. A ground-level perspective offers visibility for the long run; the top-down perspective—the bird’s-eye view of the treetops, not the trees—obscures the path and seldom produces insights that lead to success the next time. But working from the ground up we can see in detail exactly what is in our way. By focusing closely on fundamental behaviors and attitudes, we increase our self-awareness and accelerate our progress.
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