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  • William Seah

Small Steps Matter More

Everyone wants big wins. We want to be the first. We want to have a big breakthrough in our work, in our lives. If I daresay, we live for the big wins. And we think that to get big wins, we need bold moves. Our new year's resolutions tend to be bold. We set up gutsy strategic plans, and we plan for ambitious moves. And for most of us, we fizzle out. We then believe ourselves to be lazy. And we despair.

Change is hard because people wear themselves out. And that’s the second surprise about change: What looks like laziness is often exhaustion. This liberating quote is found in Switch by Chip Heath and Dan Heath.

Change requires effort. It requires us to actively choose to do something else, be it doing crunches instead of being a couch potato; to read a book instead of reading Facebook. Change is a deliberate choice made to do something we naturally gravitate to. And that takes energy.

The Rider and The Elephant

Switch talks about the Rider and the Elephant. This concept is attributed (in the book) to Jonathan Haidt. Our emotions are the elephant, charging through life. The rider is our rational mind, assessing and evaluating. When there’s a disagreement between the elephant and the rider, the elephant usually wins. And the reason is that the logical part actually takes up effort, and unfortunately for most of us, the emotional side is far bigger and stronger.

Before we decide that emotions are the enemy, Haidt has some comments on the issue. A study found that people who have brain damage and a resultant loss of emotionality did not make better decisions, even though they are no longer controlled by their emotions. In fact, they become more distressed. The elephant is able to assess a situation quickly and decide which it likes. The rider needs to evaluate all the information and it tends to lock up. The elephant knows what it likes to do and is able to make split-second decisions. Some of them are good (actually, quite a lot of them are!). It helps us decide whether to eat or not. It helps us make quick and reliable decisions. However, they are all short-term decisions focusing on survival, and or pleasure. The bubble tea will really refresh you. For a while. That glass of whisky, which quickly multiplies into a few drams, could lead to bad habits.

So what can we do? We need to direct the elephant, instead of constantly fighting it. The change will come when the elephant naturally wants to do the new action. And to do that, you need to provide clarity to the direction of change, encourage the emotional side of you to act, and reduce the cost of the change.

An emotionally intelligent person has a skilled rider who knows how to distract and coax the elephant without having to engage in a direct contest of wills. For example, children who were able to resist temptation (in a Marshmallow test conducted by Walter Mischel At Stanford University in 1970) were able to look away or think about other enjoyable activities.

Evolution never looks ahead. It can’t plan the best way from point A to point B. Small changes to existing forms arise and allow the population to best respond to current conditions. And before we think small things don’t matter, Alain de Botton reminds us that a £300 million Airbus A380 can be rendered unusable by a tiny hydraulic leak. The Hubble telescope failed simply because the mirror’s shape was off by less than 1/50th of the thickness of a human hair. Small things matter.

Why does size matter in change?

Because to change, we need new actions, new habits, that sustain over time. And size matters in developing habits and actions that sustain. Small steps are easy to take, and more importantly, easier to sustain. In Switch, we see that the big changes did not happen because of huge changes in life, but oftentimes, a small sustainable change that snowballs into a large change. One example was dieting. The research explored the use of a diet program that led to a huge loss in weight, but after the program, most dieters reverted to old habits and their weights reverted. Another group was given a much simpler task; drink two cups of soup in addition to meals. A simple move to implement. But it had a huge effect; not because it helped them reduce a lot of weight; the diet program led to greater weight loss as long as you committed to the program. It was effective because people continued with the habit over time, which led to a longer period (and hence greater) of weight loss.

This blog is another classic example of building habits and changing. It's hard to imagine writing an article every month. But what I did was commit to writing something, a short write-up, every Monday. And in the beginning, I wondered if I would ever achieve an article, much less a blog. But over time, that writing grew. I started writing just a paragraph, to several paragraphs, and over time, was able to write one article a month. It wasn’t easy, it wasn’t a miracle. It was the power of small, sustainable steps that led me to grow.

How can we use these lessons?

Want to start a reading habit? Don’t aim for 12 books a year (a tall order). Aim to read 3 pages a night (of a reasonably-sized book. If you bought a book that was A4 sized with font size 8, perhaps 1 page a night would be sufficient). Start with easier books (if you’d like a list of books I really liked, let me know! I’d share it with you). Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason will probably be a bad start in building up a reading habit; but Chip & Dan Heath’s, Switch, is an easier read (disclaimer: I do not get any referral fees or promotional fees). Or my blog. Just read one article a month!

Aim for inchpebbles, not milestones. Small sustainable gains, not big one-time moves. Inch pebbles help us achieve our goals.

I write on topics related to financial habits and decisions. Do explore my other articles at if the ideas intrigue you. Drop me an email at or text me at 9673 1523 if you’d like to chat over coffee or whisky.

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