Interlude – Practising the Baby Steps of Change

I know I’m very far behind with my Personal Kanban Calendar posts. I’m sorry. Truly, I am. But I am also not feeling too guilty about it, either.  😉

This year has been no easy ride, and I think the fact that I’m still doggedly using the calendar (for the most part) and jotting down thoughts and notes for those still-to-be-published blog posts is in itself an achievement.

But I digress. Today I want to share something else with you that’s inspired me this past week.

It also brought me up sharply and reminded that perfection is not ever the goal. Not in life, and certainly not in any application of Agile or Lean approaches.

Baby Steps over Motivation

This past week I participated in my first ever Tiny Habits experiment. The Tiny Habits programme is a side project launched by BJ Fogg, Director of the Persuasive Tech Lab at Stanford. The programme arose out of his research in effecting behaviour change. It’s a fascinating field that may resonate with you if you are active in work that involves design and human behaviour, eg. user experience design (UX), instructional design or change management of any kind or scale.

The premise of the Tiny Habits programme is simple: Instead of relying on the fickleness of motivation to effect lasting change, you should make small changes that, when combined over time, create the lasting change you are seeking.

These small changes must truly be baby steps that don’t require high levels of motivation to remember or do. And they must be anchored by existing habits in your life. The latter is critical. It’s similar to the principle of scaffolding in learning design. For new information to become fully integrated knowledge, it should build on knowledge you already have.

My Tiny Habits Experience

This past week I experimented with three tiny habits of my own, selected from a suggested list of “practise habits” suggested in the programme.  My three habits were:

  1. Floss two teeth every time after I brush my teeth
  2. Fill my water cup when I get to work
  3. Think of something I am grateful for before I go to sleep

This is not quite the format in which the programme encourages you to apply the habits, but I don’t want to give the game away entirely. The format is central to the design, though, so I urge you to sign up for a Tiny Habits week yourself to see how it works.

You’ll notice though that each of the habits involve a trigger of some kind, e.g. going to bed or getting to work. Together with the tiny habit, and the trigger, there is one last key ingredient: celebrating victory every time you remember to do your tiny habit.

You’re probably already starting to see why I was drawn to this approach? There are elements here that echo some of the core tenets of Agile: breaking work down in small achievable chunks and celebrating success. I’ve also posted about The Power of Small Thinking myself.

What happened to my habits by the end of the week?

Of the three, only (1) truly stuck. I discovered along the way that my trigger for (2) was problematic, because I don’t actually go to the office every day. And I couldn’t remember to do (3) at all, possibly because it was a mental action rather than a physical one, or because I was so tired by the time my head hit the pillow, that remembering to do anything new was the furthest thing away from my mind.

What did I learn?

I learnt that I am very bad at celebrating. There. I said it.

Although I allowed myself a little satisfied smile when I remembered one of my habits,  I mostly found myself analysing and critiquing the whys, wherefores and why nots of my tiny habits, intently focused on what I could do better or differently the next day.

Sadly, this isn’t the first time that I’ve become aware of this. I’ve posted about it before, if obliquely. And it’s clearly not a habit that I have kicked completely yet.

Just Keep Practising

Now the very point of continuous improvement is actively reflecting and seeking ways to optimize whatever it is you’re doing.  But I’m increasingly becoming wary of the fine line between seeking improvement and striving for perfection.

You can be so focused on future improvements, that you may lose out on the joy of a job well done, if perhaps imperfectly. And by doing that, you magnify the “failure” and undermine the actual progress you’ve made, leaving yourself (and others, if you’re in a team) feeling disappointed and dissatisfied.

And B.J. Fogg says it too:

If something doesn’t work right away, that’s no big deal. Just revise and keep going. In other words, say “no” to the idea of perfection and “yes” to importance of practice. That’s how you make real progress.

There’s much more here for me to reflect on and unpack for myself. But I leave you with this: However your day has gone today, find a reason to celebrate. And then do it properly. Forget the little self-congratulatory smile – bring on the 20 second dance party!

After all, we’re all living life in beta. And although that’s become a bit of an over-used phrase, it’s not a new concept. That’s life. It always has been. Let’s stop trying to be perfect, or pretending to ourselves or others that we are.

Just keep practising.

Are there areas in your life where you struggle against perfection?
Have you tried Tiny Habits yourself? What did you learn?

I’d love to hear from you!


Change comes slowly, creeping –  the way dusk gently settles at the end of the day to suddenly cloak the world in darkness, surprising everyone that the light has gone. Change is the product of a series of conscious and principled decisions and actions over time. Some changes take weeks, some months and others yet take many years to play out fully in our lives. ~ Me in 2011

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