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It’s the Little Things: The Power of Habit

Small habits add up over time
by Faith+Lead | February 4, 2021

By Sarah Ciavarri

You’ve heard it said a thousand times, “It’s the little things that matter.” While this certainly holds true for remembering birthdays and sending thank you cards, it is also profoundly applicable to building and sustaining resilience.

We develop habits by doing the same thing in the same way over and over without even thinking about it. Because our brains value efficiency and like neural pathways that are known and quickly traveled, our brains make quick connections. We see the symbol “a” and our brain knows the symbol “a” is the first letter of the alphabet. Or a new parent hears their baby cry in the middle of the night and, almost without thinking, the parent is out of bed and reaching for the child. The stimulus triggers and the response is almost immediate. Habits establish routines and routines provide efficiency and consistency.  

However, sometimes these habits that are the little things don’t serve us well over the long haul:

Perhaps we feel stressed and our first impulse is to have a beer, dessert, or a handful of potato chips. These behaviors may diminish the experience of stress in the moment; but when this response becomes a habit, we can harm ourselves in the long run.

We may either over-function or under-function in stress; we may avoid conflict because “keeping the peace at all costs” is our habit.

We have ANTS (Automatic Negative Thoughts) such as: 

  • This is going to fall apart
  • They are out to get me
  • This situation/person/dynamic reminds me another time like this, so I know how this current situation is going to end.

Even though we haven’t vetted the thought—we haven’t slowed down enough to poke holes in the thought—it feels like truth and that is its power. Over time, little things like these nagging thoughts add up and not only impact our leadership, confidence, and enjoyment of life, they cloud our relationship with God and ourselves. For the habits that don’t serve us well, we want to catch the thought, feeling, or behavior and interrupt the cycle.

We interrupt the cycle by:

Breathing
Breathing intentionally helps us calm ourselves. Breathing gives us an opportunity to refocus our thoughts.

Praying
A simple prayer may invite the Holy into the struggle, acknowledging that divine help is needed. Remember we are the creatures; God is the creator. This prayer can be as simple as: “God, I’m struggling. Help me. Help me focus on the light and love of Christ.”

Planning Regarding Those Little Things
When are you most susceptible to making poor decisions? Is it when you are hungry, tired, lonely, feeling overwhelmed? If so, get ahead of it with a little planning. I know that when I come home from work, I’m in my danger zone of poor food choices.  I’m probably overly hungry and just want to eat the first and easiest thing I see. With a little planning, I can keep healthy snacks in my car so I’ll eat those on the way home.  

Habits also contain the power for good. Again, habits provide efficiency and consistency. If we always worship on Sundays, it gives structure to our week as well as bringing us together with other believers. Brushing our teeth in the morning and at night is a habit—just something you do without a lot of thought to it.  

To build resilience, consider what behavioral scientists call micro changes.  These are very little things—remember it’s the little things that count—attached to something you already do. Like a barnacle that attaches itself to a ship, attach a habit you want to grow to something you already do.  

  • If you want to practice mindfulness, attach it to brushing your teeth.
  • If you want to do daily devotions, attach it to a sit-down meal.
  • When you are stressed your shoulders tense up, so each time you go to the bathroom, do 10 shoulder rolls to reduce muscle tension.

Many of us want to see big results for our investment of time or attention, but for developing resilience and a greater sense of agency in life, don’t neglect the power in little things. If we forget to barnacle our micro-change to a larger habit in our lives, we are more likely to give up. Here’s a formula that can help you remember this.

Healthy little habits + Time = Change 

Still need a little more motivation to see the value in the little things?  Hang this anonymous quote on your bathroom mirror: You don’t have to be perfect to be successful. 

Your Turn

Brainstorm some micro-habits you’d like to try changing, and choose one to try just for the next week. Consider diving more deeply into practices of resilience by joining the author, Sarah Ciavarri, in the upcoming webinar series, Staying Grounded in the Storm.

About the Author
Sarah Ciavarri, M.Div. is Certified Daring Way™ Facilitator-Consultant, Certified Dare to Lead™ Facilitator, and a Professional Certified Coach through the International Coach Federation. For eight years, Rev. Ciavarri has been a keynote speaker and workshop facilitator on a variety of topics including resilience, vulnerability, and shame. She is a faculty member with Coaching4Today’s Leaders, as well as the author of Find Our Way to Truth: Seven Lies Leaders Believe and How to Let Them Go. Rev. Ciavarri has been the Director of Spiritual Care at Augustana Care in Apple Valley, MN for over 12 years.

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