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Sep 6, 2022

Trying to Make a Big Change? There’s No Such Thing as a “Small Win”

Take it from James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits: The mightiest forests grow from the tiniest seeds!

Sometimes the challenge of breaking a particular unhealthy habit, cultivating a new positive behavior, or reaching an ambitious goal can loom so large that reaching it feels like summiting Mount Everest. 

“I’m not up to the task,” you might despair. “It’s too far.” 

Author James Clear has some advice: Ditch that image of scaling Mount Everest, and replace it with a bamboo forest. 

“Bamboo can barely be seen for the first five years as it builds extensive root systems underground before exploding ninety feet into the air within six weeks.” 

Small Wins Lead to Big Breakthroughs 

It’s easy to assume that to achieve dramatic results, you have to take dramatic steps. But numerous studies show that incremental adjustments to your thoughts and routines are by far the most effective way to make significant changes, create a new habit, or even form a new identity. 

Like a towering bamboo forest, major behavior changes need a chance to grow strong roots before seeing breakthrough results. You lay the groundwork for ultimate success when you take small, consistent steps toward reaching your goals.

It’s important to remember that this process takes time. While it’s normal to want quick results you can see, remember that your efforts are moving you closer to your goal. They just aren’t visible—yet! 

As Clear puts it in Atomic Habits, “Breakthrough moments are often the result of many previous actions, which build up the potential required to unleash a major change.” 

Tap into the Power of Latent Potential

Clear refers to the developing root system of big change as “latent potential.” Because you can’t see the roots developing, it’s easy to misinterpret latent potential as a plateau. Latent potential also intersects with what Clear calls the “Valley of Disappointment,” or the difference between how quickly you think breakthrough change should occur and how quickly breakthrough change does occur. 

Each time you take a small step toward changing a behavior, identity, or pattern, you increase the power of your latent potential.  

And when you harness the power of latent potential to build and ultimately create breakthrough change, you can skip getting lost in the Valley of Disappointment!

Five Keys to Harness Your Latent Potential

According to Clear, there are several keys to building the kind of latent potential that yields breakthrough results over time: 

  1. Define Your Everest

What is the ultimate goal you’re working toward? Make sure you’ve articulated it clearly. Doing so will help you identify the small steps to get you to the finish line.

  1. Identify a Small Step 

Once you’ve clearly articulated your “Mount Everest,” identify small, doable steps or “atomic habits” that can move you closer to that goal without overwhelming you. For example, if your big-picture goal is “be more organized,” a small step might look like decluttering your purse or wallet. That’s it! 

  1. Stay Laser Focused

It’s easy to get caught up in the enormity of your ultimate goal. To the best of your ability, zone in on today's small, specific task. Then you can circle back and choose another small, specific task for tomorrow. Imagine what you could accomplish in a year’s time as all those little organizational wins snowball.

  1. Write It Down

Without a written record, it can be difficult to evaluate your progress (especially when it happens slowly, over time). Document your progress in a notebook, Google Doc, planner, or calendar. Doing so will help you stay accountable, quantify your latent potential, and provide a progress record that you can refer back to (without guessing). 

  1. Track Your Progress

Tracking your progress consistently over time will give you a sense of how much latent potential you are building and how quickly. It can be helpful to schedule “check-in” points at regular intervals to evaluate your progress. 

At these check-ins, reflect on the new identity you are creating. For example, if you’ve always told yourself, “I am a disorganized person,” use your progress as evidence that you can truly begin to say, “I am an organized person.” 

It turns out that small wins aren’t actually small at all. They’re simply the building blocks that create lasting change and new identities. In recognizing the value of small wins and harnessing the power of latent potential, almost anything is possible! 

What’s one small win (a specific action you can take today) that could help you reach one of your big-picture goals? Share your ah-ha moment with us on Twitter (@bookclubdotcom) using the tag #atomichabits