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Use microsteps to build healthier habits

| Healthy You | Aging Well

Close-up of a hand writing on a calendar the words "Small Steps Big Changes"

Focus on those little actions you are able and willing to do

Many of us have health goals. Maybe it’s to lose weight. Or to eat healthier. Or to stop smoking.

Health goals are admirable, but it can be difficult to create new healthy habits when our goals are too big.

“It’s easy to fall into the trap of trying to do too much too soon,” said Amy Surface, PA, from PeaceHealth’s cardiology clinic in Vancouver, Washington. “It’s good to be enthusiastic about making a big change, but you’ll want to find small ways to start achieving it.”

An idea called “microsteps” has become popular in the last few years.

“As the name suggests, it’s about making very small changes to help create new habits that get you closer to achieving your goal,” she said. “The trick is to make the change in a way that doesn’t trigger your brain to override your efforts.”

For example, if your goal is to become a vegetarian, don’t try to go without meat all of a sudden. Instead, try telling yourself “I’m not going to eat hamburger this week.” This is easier to accomplish and you can work your way slowly toward eating more plant-based foods and less meat over a period of time.

Microsteps are all about breaking big goals down into smaller actions. . . and setting yourself up for success.

A day at a time

Amy helps patients think about changes they can make in their day-to-day behavior. Together, they’ll identify actions that support bigger health goals such as reducing blood pressure or managing cholesterol.

“I often work with patients to brainstorm things that are easy for them to do on a regular basis,” she said. “I’ll ask ‘What is one small thing you can do?’ After a while, the patient will say ‘I can do that’ to one or two of the steps we talked about.”

Here are a few ideas:

  • Go for a two-minute walk after supper. This helps digestion and lowers blood sugar, according to recent studies.
  • Make it a family rule to turn off or put away your phone during at least one meal. This reduces your time spent on screens and helps you connect with your loved ones.
  • Write or express one specific thing you’re thankful for today. This boosts positive feelings and helps you look for the good.
  • Do a simple breathing exercise. This helps to reduce stress and promotes feelings of well-being.

Any or all of these small actions have surprisingly outsized benefits. And doing one or more of them regularly over time can help you feel healthier.

“It’s easy to give up when you attempt something big and fail. But when you do something small on a regular basis, you can look back and see your success,” says Amy. “Feeling good about your success helps encourage you to keep up the good work.”

And the examples above are just the start of where you can take your efforts to create positive personal routines.

Another plus is once you have one new habit under your belt, there’s a good chance you will be eager to start another and keep building on your success.

What small steps will help you achieve your health goals? 

If you’d like help, ask your primary care provider for ideas that will move you toward achieving your personal health goals.

portrait of Amy S. Surface PAC

Amy S. Surface PAC

Amy Surface, PA-C, clinical interests are in general cardiology, lifestyle medicine and heart failure management. Her philosophy of care is, "Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food," by Hippocrates. As a native of Vancouver, WA, is an avid WSU Cougar. On her free time she loves spending time with her husband and two children. She also enjoys being creative, spending time in nature and connecting with friends.