Why changing a little is smarter than changing a lot

Olof Ekman
Sep 8, 2020

Have you ever tried to change something in your life only to fall back to the same old routine three weeks later?

Congratulations, you’re a human. We all have.

Part of what makes it so hard to change, and remain changed, is that we often have this idea that changing ourselves requires a huge amount of hard work. We think we need to give it all we’ve got and turn our life upside down if we want to succeed.

And this approach works. But only for the very few. For most of us, that strategy is not really an option because we’ve got kids to feed, jobs to maintain, lives to live, you know, the human things.

And part of what makes us fall for this approach, over and over again, is because in the beginning of any change we usually feel really excited and motivated and as though we can conquer the world. This gets us through the first week. Maybe two. If you are lucky, three. Then the initial excitement wears off and we are left with our regular self, and that’s usually when this approach breaks down and we give up. And as a result, we often think we aren’t fit for it.

If you can relate to this, I’m happy to inform you that there’s another way.

The “Five Degree Change” approach

I once read a cool analogy in a book called Atomic Habits by James Clear (can highly recommend this book if you want to learn more about habits). The analogy went something like this: Imagine you are the captain of a big ship about to take off from London heading towards Singapore. As you take off, your co-captain redirects the ship just 5 degrees. The change is so small that in the beginning, you don’t notice it. But, as you cross the oceans over several days, those 5 degrees will start to matter. And eventually, instead of ending up in Singapore, you end up in Costa Rica.

So when you are trying to implement some sort of change in your life to get you where you want, instead of giving it all your energy (which is hard to do for a longer period of time), you just make a five degree change that you can stick to and cash in big-time later.

Want to become a writer? Start writing a page a day.

Want to become a better listener? Start by listening deeply to one conversation a day.

Want to save more money? Start saving 2€ a day. (I did that 2 months ago and got 118€ so far. In a year that’s 730€. In 5 years, 3650€. And I don’t even notice those 2€ going out of my bank account each day.)

Yes, that small.

In the beginning, you might not notice much difference, but as your actions start to accumulate over a few months. Or 12 months. Or 5 years. You will end up in a completely different place.

Based on my experience, this approach works a whole lot better for most people. Because you can fit it into your regular life and all you need to be successful is patience, consistency, and a belief in the process.

Here are some examples of how this approach has worked for me (not trying to brag here!):

  • 2 years ago I started to build muscle by doing strength exercises 2 days a week. Since then I’ve gained 6kg of muscle.
  • 3 years ago I started working 25min each day building my own business. Today I make a living on it.
  • 2 years ago I started to go to bed before 23.00 each night. Today I have a solid sleep routine and get 7h of sleep most nights. (We have a 1 and 3 year old around btw)
  • 4 years ago I started to meditate for 10min each day. Today I feel a lot less reactive, am more aware of the things that trigger me and I do a 10-day silent meditation retreat each year.
  • 1 year ago I started to write for 25min each day. Today I write a few blog posts each month.

None of these changes required me to change my whole life around. And there’s nothing extraordinary about me that made this possible. I just started small and kept at it and eventually, it started to pay off.

Not sure who made this but I think they captured this idea pretty well. (If you know who made it, please let me know!)

So by changing a little you will eventually change a whole lot. This approach worked for me, my 73-year-old mum and many of the people I’ve worked with.

So what’s a five degree change you can do today and stick to that will eventually get you where you want?

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